Charlie Crist should know all too well about the price politicians pay for bad appearances. After all, it was the Florida governor’s hug of President Barack Obama last year during an event in the baseball spring season town of Ft. Myers — along with his support for the federal stimulus plan — that confirmed conservatives in their perception of him as a Republican in Name Only, and he now badly trails Marco Rubio in the GOP senatorial race.
So one would think Crist would take the opportunity this week to further his efforts to shatter those perceptions and bolster his attempted remake of himself as a sensible conservative by signing a school reform plan that would improve the quality of teaching in public schools (and improve student achievement) by ending the near-lifetime employment deals and degree- and seniority-based pay scales that have insulated teaching from any form of performance management. Not a chance. Cowed by affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — who have staged protests and sick-outs in protest against the plan — Crist has gone from backing the measure to backtracking in order to conduct a “listening” campaign on whether to sign it into law. As of today, it appears he will veto it.
This time around, it isn’t just Florida’s conservatives who are upset with Crist’s waffling. The cadre of conservative and centrist Democrats who make up the nation’s school reform movement is equally annoyed with his indecision. So is Crist’s predecessor, Jeb Bush, whose foundation has been the primary force for reforming Florida’s public education system. The cadre, at least symbolically, includes Obama himself, who instigated this and similar reforms elsewhere through the $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. Declared the Wall Street Journal in an editorial last week: “Floridians will have to decide whether they want a Senator who’s tempted to side with the adults who run public schools instead of with the children who attend them.”
Whether Crist signs the bill or vetoes it by Friday, his indecision has proven once again the harsh lesson learned by Republican and Democrat alike: it’s often better to be principled to a fault than milquetoast by a mile. Reforming public schools often proves to be especially troublesome for someone of Crist’s apparent lack of fortitude. After all, the NEA and AFT have the advantage of vast campaign war chests, rank-and-file members who can work statehouse corridors and school buildings, and ties to suburban school districts (whose images as being academically superior often take a hit with nearly every reform measure). Save for the backing of chambers of commerce, school choice-oriented organizations and reform-minded foundations, school reformers often start out at a political disadvantage.
Reforming teacher benefits — especially tenure, the protected job status that guarantees teachers near-lifetime employment — is difficult because its strikes at the very heart of the bargain that teachers’ unions have struck with their rank-and-file. Baby boomer teachers, who make up 36 percent of all teachers, are especially loath to subject themselves to the kind of evaluations to which their private sector peers are subjected. Earlier efforts to reform tenure have either been defeated (as in the case of Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s effort in 2005) or were passed only to be reversed soon after. But the high cost of teacher compensation, along with President Obama’s focus on teacher quality, has now given governors leverage to attempt stronger reforms. For a politician, the ability to withstand teachers’ union opposition translates into the perception that he will also be able to tackle important debates on the Hill with equal fortitude.
At the heart of Crist’s moment of political truth is Senate Bill 6, a package of reforms passed last week by the state legislature as part of the effort to gain as much as $700 million in Race to the Top funding. Under the recently passed bill, Sunshine State teachers would no longer have tenure, would be evaluated largely on how well their students performed on tests, could be fired if they failed to improve student learning for two out of three years, and would only keep their teaching licenses if they improved student performance for four out of five years. Teachers would earn raises only if they had measurably improved student achievement (currently, raises are automatic cost-of-living). To improve the worst-performing schools — and to end the practice of teachers moving from those schools to nicer, easier-to-teach classrooms — talented instructors would get extra pay if they agreed to stay in those classes (or move over to them).
Naturally, SB 6 doesn’t sit well with the Florida Education Association, the NEA and AFT affiliate that, along with its sister unions, has spent the past five decades making teaching among best-compensated profession in the public sector and the position most-insulated from even desultory performance management practices. In Florida, where newly hired teachers gain tenure in a mere three years, the job can be particularly comfy: Just four-tenths of one percent of tenured Sunshine State teachers are ever dismissed, according to the otherwise union-friendly Center for American Progress, a rate lower than the already-abysmal 1.4 percent national average. Proclaims FEA President Andy Ford: “This bill is anti-student, anti-teacher, anti-parent, and anti-public schools.”
But the proposal is a darling among school reformers, especially among conservatives. Rick Hess, the avuncular education czar at the American Enterprise Institute, declares SB 6 to be “the most ambitious teacher quality legislation any state has yet contemplated.” For good reason: The emergence of value-added assessment, which allows for the measurement of student test-score growth (and, in turn, teacher performance) over time, along with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, offers states and districts the tools to assess the quality of teaching staffs. The resulting research shows that the quality of teaching is more likely to affect student achievement than socioeconomic background.
The research also shows that tenure and degree- and seniority-based pay scales have little effect on student learning; a teacher is no more successful in improving student achievement after 25 years of teaching than an instructor working for four years, according to a report by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. The current system doesn’t reward talented younger teachers for their efforts — nearly half of all newly graduated teachers never enter the classroom — while it keeps veteran instructors secure in their positions whether or not they deserve their jobs.
Given the support from conservatives, school reformers on both sides of the political aisle, along with the Obama administration’s own efforts to reform teacher quality, there’s no reason Crist shouldn’t sign the bill. He shouldn’t even fear teachers’ union opposition; the FEA, for example, has given all but a pittance of its $551,700 in campaign donations in the past decade to Democrats. Or so you would think. But within the past month — and despite his low standing among even moderate Republicans — Crist has flip-flopped like Shamu during a SeaWorld performance.
Last month, Crist declared that he would sign SB 6. But by last week, Crist had changed his mind. Complaining that fellow Republicans who control the state legislature were behaving like congressional Democrats who rammed through the healthcare reform plan, Crist demanded that they weaken the bill. When the Republicans passed the bill unchanged, Crist declared that he was at a personal impasse; it didn’t help that the FEA and its affiliates have taken to the streets against the plan. When confronted with his flip-flopping, Crist insists that “I’m not reconsidering, I’m just thinking.”
Now as Crist seems likely to veto the bill, he will likely go from merely unpopular within his own party to political pariah. Former Gov. Bush — still a popular figure in the Sunshine State — had stayed out of the primary even though Rubio is one of his protégés (and in spite of Bush’s own acrimony with Crist). His successor’s flip-flopping has already led Bush to write an op-ed in support of the bill; giving Rubio his explicit endorsement may be his next step. Statehouse Republicans such as Majority Whip Carlos Lopez-Cantera now complain, “The strain of Charlie Crist’s political campaign is starting to show and interfere with his job as governor.”
Given that fellow Republican governors such as California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Indiana’s Mitch Daniels (along with Democrats such as Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and even Obama himself) have successfully stood up to the NEA and AFT, Crist simply appears unworthy of any higher office.
At this rate, Crist’s own tenure in politics will be much shorter than that of the average teacher.