Void performance pay law, teachers union asks court

By Jeffrey S. Solochek
Published December 14, 2006

Florida's teachers union challenged another key plank of Gov. Jeb Bush's education program Wednesday, asking Leon Circuit Court to order a performance pay plan removed from state law.

The Florida Education Association, long a foe of the Bush education package, has opposed the Special Teachers Are Rewarded STAR plan since its inception, characterizing it as an unfair way to judge and pay teachers.

Union lawyers contend that the Legislature overstepped authority by creating and funding the plan in an appropriations bill.

They are asking the court to order the secretary of state - the official keeper of state law - to erase the statute from the books.

"The law says that an appropriations bill can contain only a single subject, that being appropriations," said lawyer Tom Brooks of Tallahassee. "The evil here, from the legal standpoint, is that the Legislature has created legislation within the appropriations act."

Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster of Winter Garden said he was not surprised by the union's challenge.

"I think they tend to desire the status quo, a more stagnant system," Webster said. "We think it's good reform. It's just a matter of philosophy."

A spokesman for House Speaker Marco Rubio of West Miami said Rubio, who was resting after surgery, was disappointed by the move.

"It's a shame that the union is blocking a program designed to reward good teachers," said Jose Fuentes, Rubio's spokesman.

Education Commissioner John Winn had a similar reaction. He noted that the state Board of Education had already approved four plans submitted by school districts and said 16 others were close to being complete. STAR, he said, is gaining acceptance.

"FEA realizes this and seems to be grasping at straws to stop this momentum," Winn said in a written statement. "It is unfortunate that they launched yet another attempt to prevent the state's best teachers from being rewarded for their efforts."

Union leaders said they had hoped to avoid the court challenge. But the Department of Education did not issue any rules answering union concerns about STAR, including the perceived exclusion of collective bargaining in creating the plans.

The deadline for school districts to submit performance pay plans to the state is Dec. 31.

Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements admitted that some teachers might be upset if the state-funded plan, which gives 5 percent bonuses to one of every four teachers, were to disappear. The county would be left with a locally funded performance pay program that rewards just one out of 10 teachers.

At the same time, Clements said, the STAR plan could have been much better had lawmakers listened to teachers while developing the idea into law. So its elimination would be bittersweet.

"Would I be disappointed if the whole thing went away?" she said. "No."

FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said he hoped that new leadership in the House, Senate and governor's office might change the dynamic in resolving this and other education issues.

"It's been one way and one way only," Pudlow said.

"This may be an opportunity for us to start collaborating on things rather than having one side impose things on the other."

The FEA also has fought Bush's voucher plan, which the Florida Supreme Court later found unconstitutional, and has consistently railed against the grading of schools and rating of teachers using Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results. The union actively opposed Bush's 2002 re-election bid.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5304.