TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott went to a privately operated charter school in Jacksonville on Thursday to sign into law far-reaching but divisive legislation that will create merit pay for teachers and end tenure for new hires.
His signature on Senate Bill 736 marked the first law enacted by the new Republican governor.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a similar but more rigid bill last year after widespread protests by teachers and other opponents including many local school officials. That angered fellow Republicans and he subsequently left the party to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent.
Republicans say a test-based merit pay plan will help attract and keep top teachers while eliminating tenure will enable school officials to get rid of the bad ones more quickly.
"We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher," Scott said in a statement.
Many teachers and their unions remain opposed to the legislation that also chips away at teachers' due process and collective bargaining rights.
"There's just so many problems with it," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. "It's a terribly unfunded mandate" to local school districts.
Merit pay and a new teacher evaluation plan that goes along with it won't go into effect until 2014, but districts will begin spending millions to develop new student tests needed to implement those provisions during the next year while facing sharp budget cuts, Pudlow said. Tentative budget proposals in the Legislature include major cuts, although not as steep as the 10 percent reduction in spending per student that Scott has proposed.
Pudlow said the union hasn't yet decided whether to challenge the new law in court.
"We're looking at all the options right now," he said.
The bill signing also drew support and condemnation from national education leaders.
"Scott and his allies have rammed through legislation that will undermine Florida's students and their public schools," American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement. "It silences teachers, who are closest to our kids in the classroom; imposes compensation and evaluation systems that have failed to advance learning when tried elsewhere."
Former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has advised Scott, praised the legislation in a statement.
"This landmark bill recognizes that teachers are the most important factor in schools when determining a child's success," said Rhee, who founded and now heads StudentsFirst, a national advocacy group.
The GOP-controlled Legislature put the bill on a fast track and passed it just a week after this year's regular legislative session began. It passed the House on a party-line vote and the Senate with just one Democrat in favor and only two Republicans against.
Scott, a former hospital company executive, also is a proponent of charter schools like the KIPP Middle School he chose for the signing ceremony. It's run by the Knowledge is Power Program, a national charter school organization.
Teachers hired after July 1 will be the first affected by the legislation because that's when the tenure ban begins. It limits those teachers to one-year contracts, meaning school officials can terminate them without reason at the end of every school year.
The evaluation system used to determine which teachers get merit raises and those who may face dismissal will be based at least half on how much their students improve on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other exams over a three year period.
"Excellent teachers are the driving force behind student success and this bill provides a system that recognizes those highly effective educators and rewards them appropriately," said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who sponsored the measure.