Education reform sunset in the Sunshine State?

Jeanne Allen Senior Fellow, Center for Education Reform
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Ever heard of a union that doesn’t want to give its members the opportunity to earn more money?

Meet teachers unions.

In Florida, today was their day to claim “victory,” as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist—in what is perhaps the clearest sign yet that he’s looking to run for reelection as governor and abandoning his now fading shots at a U.S. Senate seat—vetoed a bill that would have rewarded talented teachers with more money.

The bill, which also sought to scuttle the Sunshine State’s antiquated teacher tenure system and replace it with year-to-year contracts (otherwise known as the way everyone else in America is paid), would have provided pay increases based on a teacher’s ability to increase student learning in the classroom.

If enacted into law, the legislation would have placed student learning on the pedestal currently occupied by “untouchable” work rules that keep bad teachers in classrooms and deny great teachers the bounties they deserve. Most importantly, the legislation that Gov. Crist vetoed today would have done what virtually every parent in America wants: provide higher pay for great teachers who help kids learn, and give principals and administrators the ability to show bad teachers the door.

But Gov. Crist, in what seems like an attempt to curry favor with unions—in hopes that they might back off if he pursues reelection—slammed the door on those hopes today.

Today’s veto—which amounts to the beginning of a sunset for bold education reform in the Sunshine State—teaches us two things. First, it draws a sharp contrast between Crist and his predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush.

When Gov. Jeb Bush worked to create charter schools, school voucher programs, and alternative teacher certification programs in Florida, he didn’t worry about his own job security when teachers unions balked. He just fought harder. He convinced the public—which was pretty much already convinced—that reform was necessary, and Jeb Bush didn’t back down. Even after the unions took him to court and called him every name in the book, he still fought. And when the Florida Education Association mortgaged its headquarters building in Tallahassee to get the cash they needed to fight his reelection, he persisted in delivering his visionary message that the students in Florida’s classrooms matter most.

He won.

For Gov. Bush, persistence paid off, and as a result of that dogged determination, education reform in Florida was born. Florida’s education reform trajectory—with charter schools, school choice, alternative teacher certification, and initial merit pay plans—has been lauded nationally and has produced real results, including reading gains for low-income and minority children. Jeb Bush’s steadfastness is taught to today’s up-and-coming reformers as a profile in courage.

But Charlie Crist is no Jeb Bush.

And just the same, teachers unions don’t represent all teachers.

The success of the Florida teachers union in securing today’s veto says a lot about what that union really thinks of its members. After all, does the Florida Education Association truly have such little regard for, or such little confidence in, its members? Many FEA members—the many good teachers in Florida—would have been richly rewarded by the bill that was vetoed today, rewarded not just with money, but with the knowledge that if you work hard, that work is celebrated, and if you don’t work hard, you’re asked to move on.

When I’ve met with teachers, they’ve told me, quite literally, that they’d “work their asses off” to meet benchmarks tied to student performance…and many of these teachers are confident that they’d succeed and be rewarded. In truth, the silent majority of teachers who work hard and perform effectively—but are held down by the inadequacies of their peers—are not represented by the union’s “one size fits all,” straightjacket-like contract rules.

We’ve always known that teachers unions don’t represent children. But today proves another important point—that teachers unions don’t effectively represent great teachers, either, even if those teachers pay union dues. Teachers unions play to the lowest common denominator—the teachers who aren’t enthusiastic, confident, or student-focused and the teachers who’d likely lose their jobs if true performance-based evaluation were to enter the mix.

Long term job security for teachers—collectively—should rely on a teacher workforce that gets the job done for students.

To accomplish this goal, we need leaders who will recognize this vision and run with it—not bow to the pressure of narrow-minded interest groups that don’t even prize their most laudable members. We need more governors like Jeb Bush, not Charlie Crist.

Jeanne Allen is the President of the Center for Education Reform (CER), a Washington, D.C.-based organization driving the creation of better educational opportunities for all children by leading parents, policymakers and the media in boldly advocating for school choice, advancing the charter school movement, and challenging the education establishment.