Tag Archives: Florida Legislature

Economics, Student Accountability and Teacher Pay

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Is Rick Scott really our next education governor?

In his proposed 2013-’14 budget, Scott suggests that Florida classroom teachers receive an across-the-board $2,500 raise. He sent a letter to the chairman of the state Board of Education for presentation at the board’s Feb. 25 meeting outlining the plan, which would cost a hefty $480 million. The governor also recommended spending an additional $14 million for teachers’ classroom supplies.

It’s easy to be cynical about such announcements. Scott proved to be a virtual nemesis of rank-and-file teachers over the past two years, cutting the state’s education budget and supporting the elimination of teacher tenure. Political realities have set in, and he seems amazed people don’t love him for the job he’s doing. In the wake of fellow Republicans’ drubbing in the last election, Scott suddenly faces the prospect of a very tough re-election, likely against now-Democrat Charlie Crist.

So Scott’s about-face could be his attempt to woo voters, especially teachers, with a kinder, gentler side.

In his letter to the education board proposing pay increases, he said they would be a way “to strategically invest in statewide priorities that will encourage job creation for generations to come.” In other words, he’s justifying the raises on the same grounds that got him elected – an appeal to job creation. He also said in the letter that the state’s teachers earned the raise because of Florida’s improvement in one national review and rises in test scores and graduation rates.

Even assuming those results are sound, they owe no thanks to Scott’s policies, but never mind. I offer another reason for raising pay for all teachers: simple economics. Does anybody in our owned-by-the-Chamber-of-Commerce, free-enterprise-forever state legislature believe teachers are exempt from one of economics’ basic rules – that talented workers will follow higher pay? If we want to know why our public-education system fares poorly compared with other states, could it be our best teachers run to other states that pay more?

Here’s another reason to support higher pay for teachers. In its zeal to ferret out whom they believe to be lazy, indifferent or incompetent teachers, our legislators put the blame for poorly performing schools on the wrong side of the equation. It’s students who ought to be held accountable, as they were in the past.

When I attended public school, the common assumption was that if a kid brought home a bad grade, it was because he was lazy, indifferent or incompetent. The onus was on students to take personal responsibility – there’s a Republican phrase for you – for their educations. It was not the teacher at fault when a student brought home straight Ds. When did we start assuming the blame lay with a bad teacher?

But of course that is not the political mantra these days. Reports are that legislators are cool to Gov. Scott’s proposal for across-the-board pay increases because they favor instead – wait for it – merit increases. Never mind that teacher and school evaluations based on test scores are increasingly proving to be failed policy.

Scott in his letter touts teachers as “the cornerstone of educational success.” He’s right, of course, but who is listening? Not the tea party or even the legislative leadership. Not teachers themselves, after the way he treated them in the past.

The same political fear that drove Scott might actually get through to enough legislators to give Florida’s teachers boosts in pay and morale. But Rick Scott shouldn’t expect anyone who supports public education to tumble over themselves rushing to thank him.


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Scoring the Florida Legislature On Moral, Religious Matters

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

For 30 years, ever since the Christian right made an alliance with the Republican Party, governments have routinely addressed religious and moral issues, and the 2012 Florida Legislature was no exception. What was interesting this go-around, however, was what didn’t pass, as much as what did.

Casino gambling, for instance.  Miami, Tampa and Panama City are natural casino destinations, but this year a bill to allow three $2-billion resort casinos in South Florida didn’t even clear its first House committee hearing.

The GOP’s social and religious conservatives held the powerful gaming industry at bay and in this instance, served the public good by preventing the scourge of casinos.

But the party’s praying wing failed to get their way on an anti-abortion measure. A bill that passed the House would have imposed a 24-hour waiting period and required doctors to take annual ethics training. A bipartisan coalition of senators, including three female Republicans –- Paula Dockery, Nancy Detert and Evelyn Lynn -– blocked it from being heard on the Senate floor.

Except for a provision that new abortion clinics be owned by physicians – an attempted blow against Planned Parenthood – the bill’s requirements didn’t seem particularly onerous, but you have to admire the guts of those three senators. A lot has been written in recent months about the Republican Party’s so-called “war on women.” In this instance, women within the party declared enough and fought back.

Another failure that brings a sigh of relief was the absurd “Application of Foreign Law” bill, which passed the House, but never made it to a vote in the Senate. The bill would have banned courts from accepting foreign laws or tribunal decisions as part of non-business contracts. If this sounds strange, it’s because the bill was aimed at one thing only: Sharia law, the Islamic legal code that lawmakers seem convinced is about to take over American courts.

The measure was modeled on legislation propagated by anti-Islamic activist David Yerushalmi. Ostensibly, the worry is that divorce settlements, child custody arrangements or other domestic affairs governed by Sharia would be approved by Florida courts, but this is a phantom concern.

The Florida Bar called the bill unconstitutional and “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” Not only did Muslim groups oppose the bill, so did Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. Orthodox Jews regularly use religious codes to govern their domestic affairs and this legislation might have affected them, too. Jewish lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, played a role in killing the bill, and good riddance.

One bill approved by both houses, unfortunately, allows school boards to permit student-led prayer in public schools. Although seen as a victory for the Christian right, even conservatives like John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council are dubious about its constitutionality. Lawmakers knew it likely violates legal precedent about separation of church and state, but passed it anyway.

Gov. Rick Scott ought to veto the measure, but you can be sure he won’t. Expect the inevitable lawsuit and the inevitable court ruling that strikes it down. The whole charade is a waste of time and precious tax dollars.

Assuming the prayer measure fails in the courts, the Legislature went 1-for-4 on the moral and religious front. As in baseball, not a very good average.

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Now, Rating Parents?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Ratings. The world is mad with ratings. No human activity is free from them today. Everything and everyone is quantified, from movies to plumbers.

The impulse to grade schools and teachers falls under this lamentable trend. The ostensible reason is accountability, but the demand for ratings has an underlying premise: We don’t trust you.

Now we have arrived at the next logical step – putting parents on the block as well. Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, wants to do just that. Her Parental Involvement and Accountability in the Public Schools bill (HB 543) would allow teachers to rate parents on how engaged they are in their children’s education. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 944, was filed by Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville.

Last week, Stargel’s bill cleared the House K-20 Competitiveness Committee, on which she sits, by a party-line, 10-3 vote. Last year, Stargel drew national attention with a similar bill, but it didn’t come up for a vote.

The rationale in Stargel’s bill states what everyone knows, that families bear the primary responsibility for a child’s success or failure in school. So the bill requires each K-5 teacher to grade the parent or guardian as satisfactory, needs improvement or unsatisfactory. The grade rests on these criteria:

  • Frequency of unexcused absences and unexcused tardiness;
  • Parental response to requests for conferences or communication; and
  • Submission of complete and accurate information, including emergency contact information, immunization records, etc.

A parent would get a “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” if one or two targets are not met within a quarter. The grade is sent home along with the child’s report card. There is an appeals process. At the end of the year, summaries for each school and district are sent to the state.

At first blush, you would think teachers would jump at this bill. They have been under the microscope for so long, this would be a chance to turn the tables a bit. But the major teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association, is concerned it could further undermine public education. And Democratic Rep. Gwendolyn Clarke-Reed of Deerfield Beach, a former teacher, is opposed, saying, “I just do not like to put everyone in the same box.”

Stargel’s hometown paper, The Ledger, editorialized against the bill, saying “the bill is cumbersome, requires more paperwork from overworked teachers who have too little time to teach and it intrudes on private portions of parenting.” Indeed, it seems strange that a conservative Republican like Stargel would want to drag the family into public scrutiny.

But is it really an intrusion into family privacy? No income or medical records are examined, no visits to the family home are mandated. The only thing measured is where a parent’s behavior intersects with the purpose of a public school – whether a student is delivered to school on time and cooperates with teachers and principals.

Knowing a bit about them, I’m sure Kelli Stargel and her husband, John, have never missed a parent-teacher conference in their lives.  But you can’t escape the feeling that this bill isn’t aimed at the Stargels or any of their friends. It’s about those parents, not us.

The real problem with the bill is that it capitulates to the unhealthy obsession with ratings. We need not more ratings but less. We need to recapture the day when public school teachers and principals were given the authority to teach and fail students without being dragged into court or berated and fired by lawmakers using an impersonal one-size-fits-all ratings chart.

Rating parents is just one more bullet in the guns that everyone is aiming at one another. No one trusts the other. The madness has to stop somewhere or soon we’ll all be rated on how well we clip our fingernails.

Give teachers insulation from parental and political threats, turn them loose, and we could spend the time and energy we waste on ratings on more useful topics. But that would require trust.

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