The issue: In March, Sen. John Thrasher of Florida introduced legislation that could forever change the culture of education: SB 6. The House soon introduced HB 7189. The bills, nearly identical, would introduce annual end-of-year exams (beginning as early as in kindergarten). Teachers’ bonuses/raises would be tied to their students results beginning in 2014. Beginning July 2010, any teacher hired beyond that point would face a potential layoff each year, again, based on test scores. Both bills were passed last week in the middle of the night, after a debate that went on from after 11:30 p.m. to nearly 3 a.m. Under Florida law, Governor Charlie Crist has one week to either sign a bill into law or veto it. Deadline: Friday, April 16, 2010.
My take: SB 6/HB 7189 cannot be passed under any circumstances. A veto would guarantee educational and economic health for the state of Florida. Implementation would be disastrous for teachers, parents, students, local economies. However, this law could benefit financially its loudest advocates and potentially become a model for education reform across the country.
First and foremost, the bill does not address the lack of equivalency across districts, schools, and even classrooms within the same school. Teachers are at the whim of principals who cut ESOL classes (those that instruct students for whom English is a second language) and ESE programs (instead giving teachers full-time aides for the children mainstreamed into the classroom), who design schedules so that one teacher always has under-performing children from homes where education is not respected and another always has the advanced, gifted or eager students who’ve had decent meals. Teachers should not be judged and have their livelihoods depend on decisions and actions of another. This point also begs supporters to remember their own school days. Surely they knew students who disrespected teachers, lied to parents about homework due, forged signatures on F papers, had severe test anxiety but could win the science fair with a long-term project. Teachers understand the need to be held accountable, but for too long, they’ve needed uncooperative adminsitrators, parents/guardians, and students themselves to be held accountable for their roles in education.
Instead, SB 6 aims to have an as-yet unwritten exam as the sole measure of accountability. Once the bill is passed, the public loses its say in the resulting consequences. Legislators will decide which company will write the questions. It’s public knowledge that some of the supporters of the bill have financial stakes in charter schools. If schools do not show improvement, parents can receive vouchers to send their children to private or charter schools. Hence, the SB 6 advocates stand to profit.
Money is a key issue that should have sunk this bill on the floor. It is an unfunded mandate. The bill has no language, no rubric for determining how successful teachers should be awarded their merit pay and where it will come from. Presumably, this money will come from increased property taxes (meaning a flight of people who cannot afford to live there), perhaps elimination or reduction of county services. Boston recently closed 3 neighborhood libraries to close a $3 million budget gap. Surely the money could have come from somewhere other than libraries. Florida could face the same future.
SB 6 passing would just cause a severe downward spiral of increasingly negative and long-term consequences. Laid off teachers would not be replaced because fewer college students would want to major in a field where their pay is based on test scores and not boosted by advanced degrees. Fewer teachers mean bigger class sizes, necessitating passage of a companion bill that would scale back a constitutional amendment that the people of Florida themselves voted for to reduce already egregious class sizes (35). Bigger class sizes mean less attention given to students, meaning performances suffer. With children failing to make progress, teachers will not get merit pay, will not be able to afford to live in safe neighborhoods, buy cars, have children themselves, or in any other way stimulate the local economies.
Eventually, with more and more state dollars going to send children to private schools and charter schools, public education as Florida knows it will cease to exist. Sure, teachers will have employment, students will learn, but politicians will profit. SB 2126, another bill up for discussion, will expand corporations’ abilities to write off donations to private schools (largely religious in nature). What do the children, the future of the state and its economic prospects, stand to gain from such an arrangement? Of course, after a few years or so, the charter and private schools will start to face the same problems public education now faces – too big classes, lack of support at home, students who hurt each other rather than conjugate verbs, etc. Merely diverting children from building that started to burn to another that’s just as likely to burn just moves them around. It doesn’t stop the fire.
SB 6 attempts to solve ballyhooed perceived problems of some genuinely bad teachers not being able to be fired due to union rules by throwing money at them. Merit pay is a great idea in theory. It does give corporate workers, sales people, etc. to do better. But such professionals have control over their situations. Teachers do not. By attempting to control the contracts of Florida teachers for “better,” SB 6 actually contracts a worse future for Florida itself, and if Arne Duncan’s southern friends have their way, for the nation as well. Charlie Crist, veto SB 6.