Media Advisory: Florida Expands School Choice, Reaches for Merit Pay

April 09, 2010
Dan Miller

Florida’s low-income and minority students won a victory Thursday, April 9, when the state House of Representatives voted to expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, also known as Step Up for Students. The program currently provides more than 25,000 low-income students with up to $3,950 per year to attend a school of their choice. SB 2126 passed 95-23, with solid bipartisan support.

More contentious was a landmark bill that would establish merit pay for teachers in the Sunshine State. The House passed SB 6 at 2:26 a.m. Friday, after nine hours of debate and with 11 Republicans joining a unanimous bloc of Democrats in opposition. Gov. Charlie Crist (R) initially had expressed support for SB 6 and had touted merit pay when he ran for governor in 2006. But Crist, who is running for U.S. Senate this year, began to waver Thursday and may veto the bill.

The following experts point out the virtues of Florida’s scholarship program. They also note the advantages—as well as some possible drawbacks—of the merit pay bill.

The Heartland Institute has been at the forefront of school reform issues throughout the United States since 1984. In your coverage you may quote from the experts’ comments below or contact them directly for more information.

“It’s heartening to see a bipartisan consensus forming around the common-sense idea that kids deserve a first-class education regardless of race or income. The Step Up for Students program, which has been growing rapidly since it was started in 2001, gives kids a chance to excel they might not otherwise have had.

“Fact is, the bill the Florida legislature passed to expand the Tax Credit Scholarship program is a modest and incremental piece of legislation. The state is increasing aid only to $140 million from $118 million a year. That’s hardly radical reform. But it’s a step in the right direction.

“Merit pay for teachers is radical only if you believe rewarding excellence is radical. Everyone knows there are great teachers, there are good teachers, and there are mediocre and lousy teachers. We’ve all encountered them. We should reward the great and the good and encourage the mediocre and the lousy to find a line of work more suited to their skills. That’s essentially what Florida is trying to do.”

Ben Boychuk
Managing Editor, School Reform News
The Heartland Institute
(818) 389-2931
bboychuk@heartland.org

“While some states have experimented with merit pay and tinkered with tenure, the Florida legislation would base teachers’ compensation on proven performance—primarily documented gains in their students’ achievement—and would end tenure for new teachers. Gone would be the lockstep pay scale that rewards poor and excellent teachers equally, according to years served and degrees held. And tenure, which makes it practically impossible to fire a teacher for anything short of homicide, would disappear as new teachers come into the force knowing they must do their jobs well year to year.

“All of this will happen if Gov. Charlie Crist lives up to his earlier promise to sign this landmark bill into law. Yes, he surely is coming under tremendous pressure from teachers unions and other special interests to veto the bill. In ‘listening to the people,’ as he has vowed to do, he should lend an ear to those who will be profoundly affected for the better by these reforms but are too young to vote—the elementary and secondary school children of Florida.”

Robert Holland
Senior Fellow for Education Policy
The Heartland Institute
(312) 377-4000
rholland@heartland.org

“Florida is on the brink of huge moves forward, though there are some concerns.

“Ending teacher compensation based on longevity and credentialing, and connecting it instead to performance, is overall a smart idea. Still, tenure should be a form of compensation that schools could adopt, as it might be more important to good teachers than salary increases, and might be more financially beneficial to schools. It is also concerning that the compensation legislation would prohibit charter schools from compensating teachers based on longevity and credentials. Charters are supposed to be independent public schools able to set their own policies, and that should include deciding for themselves how they want to compensate their employees.

“The tax credit expansion legislation lays a foundation for a school system that would eliminate even these concerns: a system of full school choice. When parents are empowered to choose any school they want, and schools are truly autonomous, then myriad compensation systems can exist, and schools, teachers, and parents can all find the ones that work best for them.”

Neal McCluskey
Associate Director, Center for Educational Freedom
Cato Institute
(202) 789-5200
NMcCluskey@cato.org

“In contrast to the Obama administration’s wrongheaded centralization of education policymaking through national standards, Florida has chosen the enlightened path of decentralization through expanded school choice vouchers. By empowering parents and their children, not Washington-based bureaucrats and special interests, Florida once again demonstrates why it is on the cutting edge of real education reform in this country, despite President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s refusal to acknowledge it when they shockingly passed over Florida in awarding ‘Race to the Top’ grants.”

Lance Izumi
Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies
Pacific Research Institute
(916) 448-1926

“Florida is continuing a tradition of granting families greater control of their children’s education and promoting excellence in the classroom by attracting and compensating the most effective teachers. Providing more students with access to a school that best meets their needs will ensure Florida continues to lead the nation in the academic achievement of its students and closing achievement gaps. Florida education leaders are also recognizing that rewarding outputs—not inputs or good intentions—will guarantee that all students have access to effective teachers.”

Lindsey Burke
Policy Analyst
The Heritage Foundation
(202) 608-6081
lindsey.burke@heritage.org