TALLAHASSEE (AP) — They arrived early, found strength in numbers but shared a sense of futility, their legislative battle almost assuredly lost even before they awakened early this week.

But hundreds of Florida teachers gathered in the halls of the state Capitol on April 5 anyway, lining up to testify before a House committee against a bill they believe could damage Florida’s educational system and ruin many of their careers — a bill that links teacher pay increases to student test scores and ends tenure for new teachers.
They carried signs and wore buttons: “Legislators Need to Do Their Homework” and “I teach, I vote.”

They spoke passionately: “If you don’t stand up and say what you believe, who will ever pay attention to you?” asked teacher Gregory Champagne of Brooksville.

They expressed solidarity: “I’m here to fight for my kids, for the teachers I work with,” said teacher Holly Allain of Panama City Beach.

But it all seemed for naught, and Allain and the others knew it. “It’s going to pass,” Allain said. “No question about it.”

The Senate had approved the measure (SB 6) 10 days earlier. The Republican majority bulldozed its identical version (HB 7189) through an earlier House committee test. The governor has expressed approval.

So why bother? Why confront these seemingly impossible odds?

“Our superintendent told us before we came that this was a done deal, but we have to try,” said Diane Price, a teacher from Wakulla County. “We care so much about our students, we can’t just sit back. We have to try.”

And they did. The committee room offered 292 seats, and it wasn’t enough. Most schools are observing Spring Break this week _ so the room was filled. A number of teachers, some carrying their infants, lined the back wall.

Urged by committee leaders to observe proper decorum, they listened patiently — and generally quietly — through more than three hours of legislative give-and-take, during which all nine moderating amendments offered by Democrats were defeated.

When they heard something they didn’t like, the teachers squirmed and murmured. When they heard something they did like, the teachers lifted their arms, waving their hands in silent, enthusiastic approval and recognition, like a roomful of eager students.

Top Republican legislators, many business leaders and other proponents of the bills say teachers should be compensated and retained based largely on student performance, as measured by standardized tests. They say the time has come to make a radical change in the way teachers are evaluated and compensated.

“There’s a real benefit to taking bold educational initiatives,” said Judi Spann, a spokeswoman for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which supports the legislation. “The future economy of Florida depends on making sure we have graduates who can compete in the global economy and stay in Florida and become the leaders of our businesses here.”

Teachers say they agree that accountability should be enhanced. Most maintain, however, that the proposal is a blunt instrument that carries significant weight but fails to account for the realities of the classroom and offers few details about how teachers will be measured.

“What if I have kids whose parents are arrested for drugs in the morning before the kids come to school?” Allain asked. “How can I be fairly evaluated against other teachers?”

She and her daughter arrived in Tallahassee at 7:30 a.m. The doors to the hearing room didn’t open until 12:10 p.m.

So there they were, she and the others, trying to make a point, if not for this year, maybe for next year.

Amanda Babcock and her husband, Jack, traveled to the Capitol from Port St. Lucie. Both are teachers. They brought their two infant children.

“You know, I can pray that it ends in my favor,” Amanda Babcock said, “that it ends with them saying, ‘We listened to the cry of the teachers, we listened to them pleading for help, and we are going to listen to them and kill this bill.’ But it’s not looking very good right now.

“But at least we can say that we tried,” she said, “and we did what we could do.”