Legislature’s approach on teacher raises lacks merit

Gov. Rick Scott has not been consistent on raises for Florida teachers. He made a $2,500 across-the-board increase one of his two priorities for this legislative session. While that raise would not be tied to a new, mandated evaluation system, he has defended the new evaluations as the proper basis for future raises, even while indicating that the evaluation system will need adjustments to be valid and fair. The Legislature, on the other hand, is being consistent on teacher raises -- consistently wrong. House and Senate budget negotiators reportedly have agreed to set aside $480 million for school personnel raises. But the raises would not be across-the-board. Instead, legislators would tie it in some fashion to evaluations. Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, defended the decision. “This is not new for the districts,” he said. “We’ve been moving toward merit-based pay increases for a while now.” That’s true. The Legislature tried to mandate a radically new evaluation system in 2010. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it. But new Gov. Scott made it a priority for 2011, and the Legislature eagerly complied. The problem is that the state has not been able to invent a fair, valid evaluation system. Instead, the state has cobbled together a jumble of subjective judgments by school administrators blended with complicated algorithms based on high-stakes tests that in too many cases have no connection to the teacher allegedly being evaluated. As Florida Education Association President Andy Ford noted in blasting the Legislature’s decision on raises,” Two-thirds of Florida teachers are being evaluated on students they do not teach or on subjects they do not teach.” So, Galvano is right that the state has been “moving toward” a merit-based system. But it isn’t there yet. Scott recognized that -- and the fact that Florida teachers average $10,000 less than the average teacher salary nationally -- when he sought the $2,500 across-the-board raises. Not only should teachers get those raises, implementation of the evaluation system should be postponed until the state comes up with a less absurd system. Politics might explain some of this mess. Republicans might be challenging Scott on this issue to get a concession from him on another issue, knowing that he proposed the raises because of his unpopularity among teachers. Or the Legislature could just be acting in a knee-jerk, damagingly ideological way. On education, it’s been moving toward that brand of legislating for years.



New provisions added to teacher evaluation bill

Sen. Anitere Flores's pitch to tweak the state's teacher-evaluation model now includes language that prevents students from having low-performing teachers for two consecutive years. Sound familiar? There's similar wording in the controversial parent trigger bill. Flores, a Miami Republican, said Tuesday that she was OK with the addition because she wants the "important provision" to pass, regardless of what happens with the trigger. Almost like a back up plan? "Exactly," she said. The fate of the parent trigger bill is far from determined. The proposed legislation, which would also allow parents to demand sweeping changes at low-performing schools, has already passed in the House. But it's anybody's guess what will happen in the more moderate Senate. Even Flores said she's "not sure" if the trigger will become law. "I know that the bill is coming up [in Senate Appropriations] today, and so that other issue of ensuring that students get assigned to good teachers, that's important to me, so I thought this other bill was a good home for it," she said. There's a new complication, though. The teachers' union now has issues with Flores's teacher-evaluation bill. SB 980 ensures that teachers will be evaluated based only on students they teach. It's passed in three committees (including Senate Appropriations Tuesday morning) and has one more stop (Senate Rules) before it reaches the floor. The bill had widespread support -- until the amendment got tacked on. "There's an evaluation system that has not been proven to be able to identify anything," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association. "We don't trust it to identify which teachers need improvement or are unsatisfactory." 




Parent trigger OK’d by Senate panel; amendment may be altered

The Senate appropriations committee voted Tuesday to approve the contentious "parent trigger" bill. But Sen. David Simmons' amendment -- which made the bill more palatable to some critics -- may be altered when the bill hits the Senate floor, said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the bill's sponsor. The bill aims to give parents more say in the fate of a struggling school. Simmons, a Maitland Republican, proposed that parents still decide, by petition, which "turnaround" option they want for the school. But his amendment, adopted April 11, would leave the final decision to the local school board. Stargel's original bill, like the version the House has already passed, leaves the final say to the State Board of Education. During Tuesday's meeting of the Senate appropriations committee, Stargel said Simmons' amendment did not contain the "language" she wanted. And she said she and Simmons would be working on ways to modify it before a floor vote. "We would not want parents to come together ... and have their voices taken under advisement, if you will," she said. The Florida School Boards Association was "comfortable" with the bill, with Simmons' amendment in place, said Wayne Blanton, the group's executive director. But without it doesn't support a bill it thinks tramples on the rights of local school boards, he said. Without it, "I think you're going to have a constitutional problem sometime in the future." Other critics reiterated their fears the bill would open the door for private companies to take over F-rated public schools. Those schools must already pick a "turnaround" option, which include continuing district management but with changes, closing the school, turning it into a charter school or turning it over to a private management firm. The bill would allow parents to use a petition drive to lobby for the option they want. Advocates say it will "empower" parents to take on a stronger role at a struggling campus. But critics say parents don't want or need the powers the bill aims to hand them. "The school boards don't like it. The teachers don't like it. They parents don't like it," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "It appears maybe no one likes it but a majority of senators."





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Prof: Standardized testing creates “toxic environment” in schools

With standardized testing finally coming to an end in most districts, schools across the nation are exhaling a collective breath of relief. After weeks of rigorous test preparation, anxiety-inducing practice, pep rallies and other contrived motivational activities, teachers and students are finally being liberated from the standardized testing rituals that have become an annual rite of passage each spring. To Southeastern Louisiana University Education Professor James Kirylo, standardized testing has facilitated "an incredibly toxic environment in our schools and in our discourse about education, ultimately turning schools from learning centers to testing factories." That emphasis on standardized testing has corrupted the focus on learning, he added, turning school-aged children into "experimental pawns." "No doubt, the stakes are perversely high," said Kirylo, who writes prolifically about schools and education. "These singular tests determine, presumably, whether or not students are learning; whether or not teachers are effective; whether or not students will be subjected to boring skill and drill summer sessions; whether or not they will pass on to the next grade level; and ultimately how schools are rated. Likewise, teachers and principals will be faced with either job insecurity or celebrated with public praise." According to Kirylo, the emphasis on standardized testing has resulted in students being objectified and curricula becoming disturbingly narrowed. "We're in an environment where conversations among policy-makers, politicians and opportunists are talking about school reform using the language of competition, product, performance and outcome," said Kirylo, last year's recipient of Southeastern's Award for Excellence in Research. "We have created a system that inherently creates winners and losers." That approach generates an atmosphere geared to winning at any costs, including the strong possibility of cheating. Kirylo said it should be no surprise that something like the recently discovered elaborate standardized testing cheating scheme in Atlanta occurred. That fraudulent activity involved the participation of teachers, administrators and a nationally recognized superintendent. "Cheating is quite common and widespread," he added. "We all want to win, and many will seek to win by any means necessary. This is true in the history of sports, the corporate world and now in education." Kirylo, a former Louisiana Elementary School Teacher of the Year, said many in positions of power are so focused on raising test scores, they lose sight of the ultimate goal of whether or not children are learning. "As a result, there is no authentic concern about addressing the social economic, emotional or psychological disposition children bring to school; no care in finding solutions for over-crowded classrooms, and no care whether these tests are appropriate," he explained. "There is only one goal in mind, and that is to win; winning means high test scores, monetary awards and recognition. Schools don't exist to win, they exist to be places of learning. The task of the educator is not to compete with other educators, but to cooperate, collaborate and work together to lift all children up. Our children don't attend school to pass a test; they attend school to learn. Unfortunately, our sick educational climate continues to inappropriately test our children out of learning."



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Pension bill: Pay more, get fewer benefits

A pension bill before the Florida Senate asks taxpayers to do something that will leave many of them scratching their heads: pay more for less. That's the conclusion of a study I conducted for the Florida Retirement Security Coalition on the impacts of Senate Bill 1392. The bill requires taxpayers to pay more to enroll a larger number of teachers, first responders and other public servants into a 401(k)-like retirement plan, in which those workers would receive less in retirement benefits years down the road. Most public employees still take home a pension based on a percentage of their salary and years of service. Good pensions make up for public-sector salaries that are typically far below private ones, especially for college-educated teachers, professionals and managers. In 2002, Florida moved cautiously toward shifting more public employees to 401(k)-type plans. The state allows employees either a guaranteed pension or their own individual accounts. Since 2002, Florida's split retirement-system plan has fared well despite rocky financial markets. The plan remains well above the 80 percent funded level considered healthy and is one of only 11 states to receive Pew Center on the States' top rating of "solid performer." But now, the Senate is joining a national push aimed at undermining the retirement security of public-sector workers -- by shifting toward 401(k)-type plans that provide no guaranteed pension and cost more. The Senate plan would raise taxpayer contributions to Florida's defined-contribution plan by 1 percent of salary -- a $43 million annual taxpayer cost. It also makes the defined-contribution option the default for employees who do not choose a plan. Paying to get more employees into the defined-contribution plan also raises the costs of the traditional pension by removing young employees who are less costly to taxpayers. With more members in the plan aging, fund managers will invest in less risky, more "liquid" assets, lowering investment returns and raising taxpayer costs. Taxpayers would shell out more for the defined-contribution plan to push more young workers out of the traditional pension so that it, too, becomes more expensive. Wall Street gets more money to manage individual accounts and Main Street gets a lower retirement income. Why is this a good idea?



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Power grab hurts lower-wage workers

Local control is about to be seriously eroded by Republican legislators who would interfere with efforts by Florida's cities and counties to help low-wage workers. The Senate may vote as early as Thursday to prevent local governments from granting private sector workers paid sick leave, which the House already has approved. Local governments ought to be able to help their residents without interference by state lawmakers doing the Florida Chamber of Commerce's bidding. About 40 percent of private sector workers and 80 percent of low-income workers do not receive paid sick days. That forces retail clerks, child care workers, restaurant servers and others to come to work sick or lose money. Contrary to the claims of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, businesses benefit from paid sick leave requirements. Increases in worker productivity outweigh the relatively small costs, according to a study of Connecticut's statewide paid sick leave requirements. In Florida, a fight over the issue is centered in Orange County. After a group collected 50,000 signatures to put an earned sick time measure on the ballot, the county commission used underhanded tactics to prevent it from coming before voters last November. A panel of judges found that the commissioners violated the county charter and ordered the measure to be placed on the ballot in 2014. Now Republican state lawmakers from the region want to bar that vote entirely. Measures sponsored by Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, and Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, would pre-empt local ordinances across the state that provide workers with certain on-the-job benefits. Simmons' bill, SB 726, would prohibit local governments from requiring businesses to provide employees with paid sick leave and other family and medical leave benefits. It would also create a statewide task force to study the issue, with members chosen by the Republican leadership of the House and Senate. Don't expect an objective review. The House-passed HB 655 is even worse than Simmons' bill. It outlaws all local requirements that say employers must provide certain employment benefits and eliminates living wage standards that local governments set with their own vendors. Counties and cities no longer could require employees of contractors be paid above the state or federal minimum wage. This would pre-empt laws in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and in cities such as Orlando, Miami Beach and Gainesville. Precourt wants Tallahassee to trash a Miami-Dade County program that has run successfully for 14 years, providing lower-wage workers a better life so they are less reliant on public services and charity. It's a familiar story. Special interests that lose at the local level go to Tallahassee and pressure a compliant Legislature to see things their way. These two bills would prevent local governments and voters from embracing reasonable job benefits such as paid sick leave. Senators who support local control and a productive work force should reject this power play.



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As economy recovers, the richest get richer, study shows

Wealth inequality widened dramatically during the first two years of the economic recovery, as the upper 7 percent of American households saw their average net worth increase 28 percent while the wealth of the other 93 percent declined, according to a report released Tuesday. The study by the Pew Research Center underscored other data showing that the economic growth that has followed the Great Recession has benefited mainly those at the top. The uneven recovery has only accelerated a decades-long trend of growing wealth inequality in the country, despite rising popular and political awareness of the dynamic.  From 2009 to 2011, the average net worth of the nation’s 8 million most affluent households jumped from an estimated $2.7 million to $3.2 million, Pew said. For the 111 million households that form the bottom 93 percent, average net worth fell 4 percent, from $140,000 to an estimated $134,000, the report said. The changes mean that the wealth gap separating the top 7 percent and everyone else increased from 18-to-1 to 24-to-1 between 2009 and 2011. Overall, the most affluent 7 percent of households owned 63 percent of the nation’s household wealth in 2011, up from 56 percent in 2009.




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