The President of the Florida Teacher's Union on a Proposal to Institute Merit Pay for Teachers

03/09/10 Robert Lorei
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There’s a battle brewing in Tallahassee over a plan to change the way teachers are paid here in Florida—it pits the head of the Florida Republican Party against the statewide teacher’s union.

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A new bill introduced in the Florida Senate by Senator John Thrasher, who happens to be the new chair of the Florida Republican Party, would dramatically change the way teachers are paid here in Florida.

Backers describe it as a “teacher quality” bill. The proposed law would penalize school districts that fail to adopt merit pay plans by cutting part of their state funding and forcing them to make up for it by increasing local property taxes.

It would also reduce teacher job protection and make it easier for school officials to fire teachers. The legislation has drawn union opposition.

Thrasher, said yesterday that his bill needs the penalty provision as an incentive for districts to adopt performance pay plans.

The bill says performance evaluations must be based at least half on how well a teacher's students do on standardized tests rather than on longevity, advanced academic degrees or other factors. The evaluations determine which teachers get merit pay and who gets fired for being ineffective.

"There has to be a clear incentive to accomplish this," Thrasher said. "Otherwise, we're going to continue to not get it done."

Merit pay is based on the premise that it attracts good teachers to the classroom and keeps them there, but Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said the penalty clause goes too far.

"I actually don't think it's a hammer," Ford said at a news conference. "It's more like a nuclear weapon."

The union says basing assessments on a single test fails to accurately identify the best teachers. It also says competing for merit pay undermines teamwork, and rewarding just a few teachers is unfair because most are doing good work and all are underpaid.

Various merit pay plans have been attempted in Florida over the past three decades, without much success.

Only eight of Florida's 67 school districts participate in the current Merit Awards Program. Just five local teachers union leaders support Florida's application for about $1 billion in federal Race to the Top stimulus funding. The application features a pay plan similar to the one in Thrasher's bill.

The penalty provision would cut state funding in an amount equal to 5 percent of what a district spends on salaries for teachers, principals and other school-based administrators. Districts also would have to raise property taxes an equal amount.

We're joined now by Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.

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