Massive protest targets education bill in Florida Legislature
Teachers, parents and students turn into lobbyists as they make hundreds of phone calls and send hundreds of thousands of e-mails to protest an education bill.
By Lee Logan and Cristina Silva
TALLAHASSEE -- Teachers, parents and even some students are flooding the Legislature with e-mails and phone calls. They're protesting outside lawmakers' offices and organizing a rally Wednesday at the Capitol.
Their chief target: legislation that would make it easier to fire teachers and base part of their salaries on test scores.
"We just couldn't sit at home and do nothing while our profession is being attacked," said Carole Robinson, a biology teacher at Dunedin High School who is driving to Tallahassee for the rally. "There is just no collaboration going on. We were shut out of the process."
Teachers are focusing their energy on House members and Gov. Charlie Crist, whom they see as their last line of defense on SB 6, the education bill that passed the Senate and is pending in the House.
Crist's office received 700 calls on the issue last week. House lawmakers have received hundreds of thousands of e-mails and thousands of phone calls, according to Speaker Larry Cretul's office.
Much of the effort is spurred by the Florida Education Association, the state's main teachers union.
Spokesman Mark Pudlow said the union is explaining the bill's provisions to teachers and that "needless to say, they're not very happy about it."
The online hub of the lobbying effort is a Facebook page called "Stop Senate Bill 6," which has almost 17,000 supporters. Visitors can find information on a dozen upcoming rallies across the state, as well as legislators' contact information.
"By far, this is the hottest issue I've ever had," said Rep. Bill Heller, a St. Petersburg Democrat who opposes the effort.
Under the bill, teachers hired after July would work under one-year contracts instead of the current multi-year contracts awarded to teachers after three years of service, which is informally known as tenure.
Districts would have to create base salaries and set aside a pool of money for performance bonuses that would be based on test scores and other guidelines developed by 2014.
The legislation would cause a major shift from current pay scales, which base salaries on degrees and years of experience.
Republicans acknowledge the torrent of phone calls and e-mails but say much of the response is based on "misinformation," such as claims that teacher salaries would be cut and that tenure for current teachers would be abolished.
"This is just the next attempt, I think, for people to say, 'Oh my gosh, they're going to try to hurt education,' " said Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who chairs the House Education Policy Council. "This bill does just the opposite."
The lobbying is even coming from students. Guillermo Ortiz, 17, got the number for Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, from his teacher at Hialeah High School. He got a bathroom pass and called from his cell.
"I have many teachers who are like my friends," he said. "They are good teachers. I am worried about them."
The legislation squeaked by the Senate last week on a 21-17 vote. Supporters in the House hope to pass an unchanged bill in the next few weeks to avoid a return vote in the other chamber.
Such a move would send the bill straight to Crist.
"Some of the senators have buyer's remorse," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who opposes the legislation. "They are hearing from teachers they care about how bad the bill is."
Even with the heavy lobbying of Crist -- whose three sisters are educators -- the governor has a "generally favorable" view of the bill.
"I think it's important that we have quality teachers that are determined by quantitative analysis so that the best interest of the child is always first and foremost," Crist said Tuesday. "I want to make sure we're respectful of teachers and those in the teaching profession as well."
In the House, several moderate Republicans will likely oppose the bill, including Rep. Julio Robaina of Miami.
"In the real world, not all teachers teach in the best schools," Robaina said. "There would be a lot of obstacles for these teachers who teach in less-privileged communities. They are going to have a very hard time to be able to meet the standards."
Last week, a group of Miami schoolchildren demonstrated outside the office of Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Hialeah. His daughter, an 11th-grader, told him "not to hurt teachers." Even so, he is leaning toward supporting the bill.
"I think it is going to be a tight vote," he said. "I don't know necessarily if the votes are there to pass it."
Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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