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Crist vetoes teacher tenure bill

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist has vetoed SB 6, ending a week of suspense and protests against the controversial teacher tenure bill sponsored by the chairman of Crist's own political party. Crist's action goes against conservative leaders, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, and will likely spur more speculation that he plans to break from the party and run as an independent for U.S. Senate. Crist cited "several issues of concern," about the bill, which would have ended traditional tenure for teachers hired after July 1 and tied teacher salaries and recertification directly to student performance on tests. It would have also made it easier for districts to freeze pay and even fire experienced teachers deemed to be ineffective.
Crist said among his concerns was that the bill did not accommodate special education students and teachers. "There must be more consideration given to their individual needs than is afforded in this bill." He also said he was concerned that the state's control in the bill might infringe on the constitutional right of local control, and by the way the bill went through the Legislature, bypassing teachers and others. "I find the content of Senate Bill 6 and the manner of its adoption significantly flawed," said Crist. The issue of merit pay, which he said he supports, is "worthy of future pursuit in a collaborative setting... We must start over. This bill has deeply and negatively affected the morale of our teachers, our parents and our students. They are not confident in our system, because they do not believe their voices have been heard." Crist said the process reminded him of how the health care reform bill in Congress was handled, which members of his party criticized. Praise has already started coming in from Democrats and even from Paula Dockery, who was one of the Republicans who voted with Democrats against the bill. In an e-mail to Crist, Dockery thanked him "for your courage today in vetoing SB6. Your action shows that you were willing to stand with teachers, parents and students at potential political peril. You put principle over politics and I am personally very grateful. Future policy on teacher tenure and merit pay should be formed with input from those in the front lines of our education system." In a statement, Florida House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands, D-Weston, praised Crist for vetoing a "unconstitutional, flawed and mean-spirited" bill that Republicans "tried to ram down our throats." But the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said defended the bill, saying in a statement, that it would have attracted better teachers to the state. "It goes without saying that I am disappointed this legislation has been vetoed by Governor Crist, and I continue to think that one day it will be fully implemented in our state," he said. Crist has been in the hot seat since the House approved the bill in the early morning hours of April 9, after eight hours of debate. The measure passed both the House and Senate along party lines, but not without Republican defectors, including Paula Dockery and Alex Villalobos in the Senate and Ed Homan and Faye Culp in the House, all of whom later urged Crist in writing to veto. Because the governor received the bill during the session, he had only seven days to decide whether to sign or reject the measure. Crist's action today beat that clock by more than 24 hours. Conservatives and business groups rallied around SB 6, arguing that it would be a transformational education reform, injecting unpredecented accountability into the public school system. The new emphasis on "performance pay," according to advocates like the Florida Chamber of Commerce, would have rewarded the best teachers with more money, sooner in their careers. Critics argued the bill was a thinly veiled attack on the state teacher's union, historically a backer of the Democratic Party; SB 6 supporters countered that the union had led a fear-mongering campaign that misrepresented the bill. Hillsborough County would have been exempt from the bill's effects because of ongoing reform efforts at the local level. State and local teachers' unions mounted a massive protest campaign against the bill that surged in intensity after the final House vote. Teachers, students and other opponents flooded the governor's office with tens of thousands of messages lambasting the bill for overemphasizing testing, robbing teachers of job security and ceding local districts' control over schools to the state. The bill, they said, included costly unfunded mandates and would become a disincentive for talented people to enter or stay in the teaching profession. Senate sponsor John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, who took over as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida in February, said repeatedly over the last week that Crist had assured him he would sign the bill. Crist acknowledged that he was supportive of the bill through much of the session but denied promising that he would actually sign it.

Reporter Catherine Whittenburg can be reached at (850) 222-8382.

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