Senate Bill 6, which cleared the Florida Legislature in the wee hours of Friday morning, was Tallahassee’s version of the health-care legislation that caused such a ruckus in Washington last month.
To be clear, SB 6 has nothing to do with health care. It concerns public school teachers, how they are paid and evaluated.
The similarity is that both the federal health-care bill and the teacher merit-pay bill were highly contentious and fell right along party lines.
In Washington, no Republican voted for the health-care plan, which was approved by the Democrat-controlled Congress. In Tallahassee, the Republican-controlled Legislature pushed through the teacher bill and sent it to the governor for his signature.
The Associated Press described the Florida teacher bill as “legislation that would make it easier to fire Florida teachers and link their pay to student test scores.” The bill — “hailed as a national model by conservative academics and politicians” — was backed by business interests, as well as most Republicans, while opposition came from teachers, their unions, local school officials and Democrats.
The floor debate presented quite a contrast. Republican leaders said the teacher-pay bill will lead not only Florida, but also the other 49 states, to better public schools. The out-voted Democrats cringed. One state representative called it “all bad, bad, bad” and urged his peers to “stop this madness.”
So which is it: an elixir to improve public schools or a formula for ruin?
When such issues fall so clearly along party lines, finding an objective view — or at least a less-subjective view — can be trying.
In Florida, experience tells us, such views often can be gleaned from a nonpartisan group known as Florida TaxWatch.
TaxWatch is concerned with how the government spends money and the return received. It’s not a group that starts from the position that all government spending is bad.
Early last week, TaxWatch analyzed the many different aspects of SB 6 and weighed in, siding — for what it’s worth — with the proponents.
“Public education is one of the most important investments we make as a state,” said Dominic M. Calabro, president of TaxWatch. “However, we know that not every dollar we spend has an equal return on investment, and that simply throwing more money at education — money which the state does not have right now — is not sufficient to improve student outcomes. Instead, we need to focus on the things we know matter most to student learning — good teachers and good administrators. Many of these reforms make great strides in improving Florida schools and I commend the leaders of the House and the Senate for pursuing these measures.”
The report acknowledged that Florida public schools are improving based on annual measurement of student skills; still, the improvement in preparing Florida’s children to compete globally is moving at too slow a pace.
“(Florida) is more than a generation away from having students ‘grade-level’ proficient in reading and math,” Calabro said.
At the current rate of improvement, TaxWatch says, it will be 17 more years before all Florida third-graders are reading at grade level and seven more years until all third-graders are doing math at grade level.
For seventh-graders, it will be 13 more years until the reading goal is reached and 21 years until the math goal is attained.
And, on the high school level, it will be 25 more years before all Florida 10th-graders are doing math at grade level. TaxWatch’s analysis of 10th-grade reading score improvements show that unless something changes, Florida’s 10th-graders will never be reading at grade level.
Eternity, TaxWatch says, is too long to wait
“Research shows that the major influencers of student learning are the effectiveness of the teacher and of the school administrator,” TaxWatch concluded. “Thus, it is logical to examine statutory elements related to education personnel when seeking to improve learning outcomes.”
That means teachers and administrators have to be evaluated by measurable data and rewarded for performance.
“We can and must do better,” TaxWatch concluded. “Reforms are needed … the major concepts encompassed in the legislation hold the promise to provide a good starting point for necessary change and open the door for honest dialogue on how to better meet the needs of Florida’s most precious resource — her children.”
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org