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Jax Daily Record Friday, Mar. 12, 201012:00 PM EST

Senate panel approves school overhaul bills

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by Kathleen Haughney

The News Service of Florida

FROM THE CAPITAL

A Senate panel approved on Wednesday a package of bills that would overhaul Florida’s public education system, creating a system of merit pay for teachers and increasing the amount of math and science a student needs to pass to graduate.

“It’s a Nixon goes to China type of thing,” said Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) who is sponsoring the teacher merit pay legislation. “It’s a major move, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If anyone believes the status quo in education is OK then they’ve got their head in the sand.”

The merit pay bill, SB 6, would throw the status quo out the window, tying teacher pay to how well their students perform on standardized exams and putting teachers on annual contracts. And if schools don’t participate in a merit pay system, then the state will hold back funding, making it likely the school board would have to levy a tax on local residents to compensate for the lost dollars.

The bill, a pet proposal of the Jeb Bush-based Foundation for Florida’s Future, won easy passage through the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee Wednesday, passing on a party line vote of 6-2. But Democrats and the Florida Education Association, which backed Bush’s 2002 gubernatorial rival, have begun a full scale offensive against the legislation.

Supporters say it will root out ineffective teachers and create better learning gains among students. But opponents argue the legislation could do more harm than good. Sen. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami) said that the bill doesn’t take into consideration students who come from different backgrounds or have families that may not be supportive of their child’s school work.

“We have to remember that education is an evolving process and our children come to us with many experiences,” Wilson said. “They don’t all come to us from the same cookie cutter homes. And we have to take them where they are and teach them where they are.”

Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association, told committee members that the legislation still needed a lot of work and that he was particularly troubled over the taxation penalty that will be forced upon schools if they don’t enact a merit pay schedule. He also warned that it could have a devastating impact on teachers.

“This bill has done more to damage morale than anything I’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

School boards are also grappling with the changes that could come with the heightened graduation standards bill being pushed by Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice).

Under the bill — also approved by the committee Wednesday — all would eventually have to take geometry, two years of algebra, biology, chemistry or physics and an additional “rigorous” science course. The class requirements would be phased in as would end-of-course examinations, which would eventually replace the state’s current standardized exam, the FCAT.

Students would have to pass the end-of-course exams in algebra one and two, biology, and chemistry or physics as the exams are phased in to receive course credit.

Similar legislation passed the House last year, but faltered in the Senate. Detert said she believes this year will be different because the package of bills in the overhaul might give the state a leg up in its quest for the federal Race to the Top grant, which could give the state $1 billion in education funding.

Florida has been named a finalist for the federal dollars and state officials should find out in April if the state will receive the money. The major tenets of the state’s application for the money call for the enactment of merit pay and stricter graduation standards.

Rocky Hanna, the principal at Leon High School in Tallahassee, said principals across the state have some concerns about the legislation, particularly how it will affect graduation rates. Hanna said Leon High School currently has an 87 percent graduation rate, but many of his students never set foot in chemistry class. He said he is worried the graduation rate could drop by as much as 30 percent.

“You can’t even join the military without a high school diploma,” he said.

Detert’s bill, SB 4, and Thrasher’s bill, SB 6, both go to the Senate Ways and Means Committee next. A House version of merit pay is expected to debut some time next week, and the House’s graduation standards legislation has already passed one committee and now has stops at the Education Policy Council and the Full Appropriations Council on Education & Economic Development.

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