The Florida legislature passed the Student Success Act yesterday. Republicans call it a Race to the Top bill. Maybe it is … for standardized test publishers. (More)

Florida Awakening, Part I – Race to the Bottom

This week Morning Feature considers the plans of and protests against Florida Governor Rick Scott. Today we examine Gov. Scott’s three-pronged attack on public employee unions, Senate Bills 780 and 830, and House Bill 1023. Tomorrow we consider the Florida Immigration Enforcement Act, based on the law Arizona passed last year. Saturday we’ll see how the Awake the State campaign is pushing back.

On Carrots and Sticks

Yesterday the Florida House passed Senate Bill 780 on a party line 80-39 vote. The Florida Senate had already passed the bill. Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a similar bill amidst widespread protests from parents and teachers. But Crist is no longer Florida’s governor, and there seems little doubt that Gov. Rick Scott will sign this year’s version. While the media usually refer to this as the “merit pay bill,” that’s as almost disingenuous as its official title, the Student Success Act. There is no evidence the bill will improve student success, and little chance teachers would receive merit pay if students did improve. But the publishers of standardized tests will do well.

The bill applies to all Florida teachers hired after July 1, 2011. The bill exempts current teachers with union contracts unless they transfer to another district, leave and return to teaching, are laid off and rehired … or their unions are decertified. More on that last bit later.

Under this bill, Florida teachers will have only year-to-year contracts. Retention evaluation will be based 50% on principals’ comments, and 50% on an unspecified “value added” formula based on students’ performance on nonexistent standardized tests. Teachers with negative evaluations in two of any three years will not be renewed. Teachers with the highest evaluations will receive bonuses – hence the “merit pay” moniker – to be paid from nonexistent funds. Teachers would receive no pay raises for seniority, or for earning advanced degrees or national certification.

Unspecified, nonexistent.

Those adjectives were not mere opinion. The bill does not specify the “value added” formula to be used in evaluating teacher performance. It mandates standardized tests for each subject and grade level, but most of those tests don’t exist and the bill provides no funding to develop them. Instead, each school district must pay standardized test firms, like the firm owned by Neil Bush, brother of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former President George W. Bush.

Where will county school districts get that money? They could try to raise taxes, but that didn’t work well in Miami. And with Gov. Scott’s budget cutting $1.75 billion from education, districts will already be paring back arts and extracurricular programs. So the money to fund standardized tests will come from already-tight teachers’ payroll budgets. And according to the bill’s sponsor:

When a district has determined there is money available for salary increases, [the money] must be prioritized to teachers that have been ranked highly effective first.

Thus the media moniker “merit pay bill.” Teachers whose students do well – by an as yet unspecified formula, on an as yet nonexistent test, funded by the school district with money taken from teacher payroll – will get a bonus “when a district has determined there is money available for salary increases.” Say, if unicorns walk into school board meetings spraying hundred dollar bills.

Collective bargaining? Umm….

Senate Bill 780 does not directly attack collective bargaining. Teachers with union contracts will retain the terms of those contracts, and teachers’ unions could still collectively bargain. Teacher pay will be off the table, as will benefits like health insurance and retirement, with nonnegotiable terms set by the state. But they could still bargain over working conditions, if they’re not worried about a principal’s negative evaluation.

And if they still have a union.

Senate Bill 830 would make it illegal for public employee unions to deduct dues from paychecks if any portion is used for political contributions, unless each member certifies each contribution in writing. If you’re looking for the companion bill that bars corporate political contributions unless each shareholder certifies each contribution in writing, keep looking. Maybe the unicorns ate it.

And House Bill 1023 would effectively decertify any public employee union that cannot prove 50% of eligible employees are members. With SB 830 forcing unions to solicit dues from members or lose their enrollment, HB 1023 would eliminate public employee unions in Florida. As Florida is a “right to work” state, employees cannot be required to join a union. A union leader I spoke with last week said he knows of no public employee union in the state with 50% enrollment.

And if teachers’ unions are decertified, their contracts are void … and current teachers would also be subject to SB 780. Republicans say the bill is necessary to qualify for “Race to the Top” funding.

It’s a race, all right. But not to the top.

+++++

Happy Thursday!