by Kathleen Haughney
The News Service of Florida
Gov. Charlie Crist defied Republican party leaders Thursday, vetoing one of their top priorities — a measure that would link teacher pay to student achievement.
After several days of wavering, Crist pulled the trigger, chastising lawmakers for rushing the bill through the process and ignoring input from thousands of teachers who called and wrote to them about potential kinks in the legislation.
“Quite frankly it reminds me of what happened with the health care bill in Washington where members of my party criticized the Democrats for sort of jamming something down their throat, and then here, about a month later after that happened, the very same thing happens here in education,” Crist said.
The legislation (SB 6) would have based teacher pay raises on a performance appraisal determined by local school districts. Half of that appraisal would be based on student learning gains on standardized exams. The Department of Education would have been charged with developing metrics to measure learning gains.
Teachers have protested that many of the accomplishments they make with students cannot adequately be tested. Many teachers showed up at committee meetings over the last month and told stories of children who have special needs or have a difficult home life. Some warned that teachers would be less likely to go to problem schools out of fear that they would be unsuccessful with students who are in unstable environments.
Crist’s veto flies directly in the face of Republican Party Chairman Sen. John Thrasher, who sponsored the bill, and several other leading Republicans who declared it a priority. Thrasher told reporters after the veto that it was disappointing and it appears there will likely be no attempts in the final two weeks of the legislative session to pass a measure to get around the veto. But he also acknowledged that it often takes more than one year to pass legislation and said it could pass next year — when Crist will no longer be governor.
“We made the best effort we could make in the House, in the Senate,” Thrasher said. “And I’m confident that this is an idea that’s going to sweep across America. I am confident of that.”
Democrats as well as the Florida Education Association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and the Florida School Boards Association had been lobbying hard against the bill, but even some representatives of education community were shocked at the public outcry over the legislation.
Crist alone received 65,259 phone calls and e-mails in opposition and 3,090 in support. A spokesman for the governor reported that there were an additional 50,902 e-mails that have not yet been categorized.
His decision drew quick praise from Democrats, but derision from many of his fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Larry Cretul, Senate President Jeff Atwater and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who publicly and vocally twisted arms to garner support for the legislation. The bill also received substantial backing from the business community.
“I am disappointed by the veto of Senate Bill 6,” Bush said in a release. “By taking this action, Gov. Crist has jeopardized the ability of Florida to build on the progress of the last decade, which includes raising student achievement across the board, narrowing the achievement gap for poor and minority students, and improving graduation rates.”
Crist said despite his support for the general concept of merit pay, he had several problems with the bill, specifically how learning gains for special needs children are measured and potential encroachment on constitutional rights on local control for school boards.
“SB 6 places teachers in jeopardy of losing their jobs and their teaching certification without a clear understanding of how gains will be measured and without taking into account circumstances beyond the teacher’s control,” Crist said.
Many Democrats walking around the Capitol after the announcement were jovial in response to the governor’s decision. Incoming House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders and current Leader Franklin Sands said it was the caucus position that members would not publicly gloat about the victory.
“Only privately,” Sands added.
Sen. Dan Gelber (D-Miami Beach) noted that the measure could return in some form in the future, though likely not this legislative session.
“Obviously it’s a victory, but I’m not uncorking champagne,” he said. “Because frankly it’s almost a sad statement that we had to fight this hard to stop something so wrong headed. We shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”