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Fla. Teachers' Union To Offer Alternate Merit-Pay Plan to Council

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Reacting to proposals discussed so far by the state's recently established merit-pay commission, the Florida Education Association/United has developed a plan of its own that it expects to present to the commission at its Oct. 27 meeting.

The Quality Instruction Incentive Council, established this summer in a special legislative session to develop recommendations for a statewide merit-pay system, has three classroom teachers as members, one of whom represents the feau.

But the council has focused most of its discussion on judging teachers according to their students' achievement, according to the teachers' association. Dissatisfied with that approach, the union had considered ending its involvement with the commission, but decided instead to offer a plan that it regarded as a workable alternative.

The Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, the state's other major teachers' union, also has concerns about the council's direction so far.

"We have some real concerns, first of all about the time line, the really short time to do this," said Ruth Holmes, president of the ftp-nea, who represents that group on the council. "The Governor would like a plan by December so it can [have an] impact on the budget."

Although the council has not yet presented a formal plan, Ms. Holmes said, the ftp-nea is also concerned about the notion of linking merit pay with students' performance. "I have real concerns about giving a teacher merit pay based on student performance," she said. "There are too many things we don't have control over as teachers, including parental support."

The feau's plan includes elements of other incentive plans for teacher pay, according to Richard Layer, director of government relations for the association, and is intended to improve conditions for both teachers and students. The feau is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

"We've developed a plan that we feel would increase student achievement and at the same time attract and retain the best teachers," Mr. Layer said. "It's more than merit pay. One component is a career ladder, but there are many things we feel will improve education in Florida." The three-year plan would cost the state $1.3 billion, he said.

As a first step, the plan suggests that officials raise the base salary for teachers by an average of $3,400 per teacher; that would place Florida's starting salary in the top quartile nationally, according to the union. This across-the-board increase is included in the overall cost of the plan, Mr. Layer said.

Teachers as Apprentices

Under the plan, teachers would be required to begin their careers as apprentices. Within five years, in order to be eligible to become senior teachers, apprentices would have to earn a master's degree in their field and be deemed successful by a team of evaluators from outside the school.

If, after five years, a teacher has not met these requirements, he or she would not be permitted to continue teaching, according to the proposal. Teachers could move to the senior-teacher level after only three years. At the second level, they would receive an additional $5,000-pay increment from the state.

There would be no limit set on the number of teachers who could become senior teachers, Mr. Layer said, and those who achieved that level could remain there for the remainder of their careers, provided they continued to pass through periodic evaluations successfully. Senior teachers would spend all of their time teaching, and would have 10-month contracts.

After three more years, under the union's plan, senior teachers would be eligible to move to the level of associate master teacher. To attain that level, they would have to undergo an in-depth evaluation and would participate in some type of further training. If approved, they would receive an additional $5,000 raise from the state. They would have 11-month contracts and would spend between 75 and 100 percent of their time teaching. The rest of the time they would work with apprentice teachers and on curriculum de-velopment, Mr. Layer said.

Three years after that--or between nine and 12 years after the start of their teaching career--associate master teachers would be eligible to become master teachers, again after evaluation and training. Working under a 12-month contract, they would receive an additional $5,000 in pay, and would spend 50 percent of their time teaching. "We don't want them to leave the classroom," Mr. Layer said.

The plan includes other proposals to improve education as well, Mr. Layer said, such as an increase in the number of teacher's aides and the development of a joint management-union training program on evaluation. "How to evaluate is a big part of what we're talking about," he noted.

The teachers' group plans to seek legislative approval of the plan, with funding delayed for a year or two, Mr. Layer said. "We're not asking for $1.3 billion now. But we're very adamant that whatever reform passed is funded."

The ftp-nea, however, would be likely to disagree with some of the proposals made by the other teachers' group, Ms. Holmes said, adding that she had not yet seen the complete proposal.

Ms. Holmes said that she did not think it would be realistic, for example, to expect teachers to complete a master's degree within five years of starting their careers.

"They don't even pay teachers a living wage, and many people can't afford to go get a master's degree," she noted. "There are teachers who are not close to a university. A teacher with small children may not have the time to get a master's degree. You're automatically putting a lot of people who can be outstanding teachers out of the teaching profession."

Ms. Holmes said she also disagreed with the proposal that master teachers spend 50 percent of their time away from the classroom. "I have a real problem with that," she said. "Again, you're identifying the best teachers and taking them out of the classroom. We want the best teachers to remain in the classroom."

"We already pay teachers more for experience and education; we already are evaluated by law. The only thing wrong with the schedule is that there's not enough money in it."

The merit-pay commission's report is due Dec. 1. The legislature convenes in early April.

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