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Right Move, Wrong Reasons

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recently gave an "F" to his state Legislature’s attempt at reforming public schools. The grade is right, but Crist’s reasoning may have been as misguided as the bill itself.

The legislation, which was heavily opposed by teachers unions, would have tied teacher pay closely to student performance and would have ended tenure for new public school teachers. Crist vetoed the bill, telling legislators that they should rewrite the legislation from scratch.

Paying good teachers more money makes sense, but the Florida bill, like so many other poorly-thought-out education reforms, made the mistake of assuming that standardized testing reliably renders an accurate picture of what students have gained from a year in the classroom. The bill would have labeled teachers “highly effective,” “effective,” “needs improvement” or “ineffective,” with half of the evaluation based on learning gains as measured by standardized tests. “Highly effective” teachers would have gotten raises while those who were consistently labeled “needs improvement” or “ineffective” would have been unable to have their certification renewed.

The bill did not include any mentoring or training for teachers to help them improve their presentation of material in order to bring up test scores. Without this support, teachers, afraid of losing their certification, would most likely have resorted to the kind of rote learning that American schools moved past decades ago, but which high-stakes testing already makes too common. A well-designed test might prompt teachers to focus on fundamental skills, rather than simple memorization, but the Florida bill did not allocate any money to test development.

The bill also would have unfairly penalized those teachers who work with disadvantaged students who often face obstacles outside of school that interfere with learning. Teachers would have flocked to schools in wealthier areas, leaving the students most in need of high-quality teachers underserved. Immigrant and at-risk students would have been shunned.

I agree with the bill’s other major component, phasing out tenure for public school teachers. Tenure evolved at the university level to protect academic freedom, ensuring that professors would not lose their jobs for teaching or publishing unpopular theories and research. Teachers in elementary and secondary schools, however, work off standardized, government-mandated curricula and rarely publish ground-breaking, potentially incendiary work in their fields. There is, therefore, little threat of ideologically motivated firings. Instead, tenure at the elementary and secondary levels serves merely as a job-protection device, ensuring that staff reductions are based on seniority rather than merit.

The tenure concept has expanded to ridiculous lengths in many places, covering principals and even district administrators who never set foot in a classroom. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg is hyping a plan to close “rubber rooms,” officially “teacher reassignment centers,” where teachers facing disciplinary action sit, doing nothing while collecting full salary, sometimes for years. But while the physical rooms would disappear under Bloomberg’s plan, teachers would still be paid, either to do nothing, or to do administrative tasks, because state laws and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire these non-teaching teachers.

In many places, public school enrollments are beginning to decline as the children of Baby Boomers move into college and beyond. Those districts have too many teachers, period. This is fine with teachers unions, which will just argue for ever-smaller class sizes and for seniority protections for even the most burnt-out and ineffective instructors. But it's bad for kids and bad for taxpayers. At its core, the Florida legislation was trying to respond to those concerns, though it was off-target and needed to be vetoed.

But Crist’s veto may have been less about what’s best for public school students and taxpayers and more about what’s best for Crist. Crist is expected, any day now, to drop out of the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race and run as an independent instead. In polls of Republican voters, Crist is trailing far behind state House Speaker Marco Rubio. But Crist has a narrow lead in polling for a hypothetical general election in which Crist is running as an independent, Rubio as the Republican candidate and Rep. Kendrick Meek as the Democrat.

In order to win the general election without the backing of the Republican Party, Crist will need the support of moderate Democrats, independents, and, most of all, the large and powerful bloc of teachers and their unions. With one stroke, Crist's veto on the Republican-backed education bill gives him a much better chance with all these constituencies, while primarily offending conservative hardliners who are likely to support Rubio anyway. Former Gov. Jeb Bush may not be happy, but Crist landed on the popular side of a bill that even united the Broward County school board and its teachers union, which are at an impasse in contract negotiations.

Crist highlighted his opposition to the elimination of tenure, the main sticking point for teachers’ unions, while claiming that he will work to improve teacher performance by strengthening existing laws that tie teachers’ scores to those of their students.

Lawmakers intend to accept Crist’s invitation to start over but are not yet sure when they will be able to put forward their next attempt. "Major legislation like this sometimes takes years to pass. This is not done overnight,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Republican state Sen. John Thrasher.

Florida’s taxpayers and students can only hope the next attempt is a little better than the last.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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