Teachers File Merit Pay Lawsuit, Challenge State of Florida
A lawsuit filed in circuit court in Leon County by the Florida Education Association says the merit pay law that ties the salaries of teachers and other school employees to student performance on tests is unlawful because it violates a right to collectively bargain for wages, contracts and promotions that is guaranteed in the state constitution.
“This sweeping change totally changed the teaching profession in Florida,” said FEA President Andy Ford during a press conference Wednesday. “And the Legislature did it while ignoring repeated calls by the FEA and others for a more collaborative approach that sought buy-in from educators and a sincere effort at compromise.”
The lawsuit provoked an immediate response from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Foundation for Florida’s Future, two groups that are big supporters of teacher merit pay.
“It is unfortunate that the labor union claiming to represent teachers has resisted every meaningful education reform for more than a decade,” said Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson in a statement. “Now they are going to spend money fighting one of the most important education reforms this country has ever seen.” Wilson said the law will restore respect for teachers and “opens the door for higher salaries.”
The lawsuit sets the stage for yet another legal battle for the powerful teacher’s union with the Republican-controlled Legislature and conservative Gov. Rick Scott, both of whom were big supporters of not only the teacher merit pay law, but championed other laws that were opposed by unions and public employees.
The FEA and other unions have been in the legislative cross hairs in recent years – one proposed law would have made taking union dues out of a paycheck illegal. That’s because unions are generally supportive of Democrats and are seen as one of the biggest political threats to Republicans.
“The Legislature would love to get rid of the Florida Education Association because we are the only ones that seem to stand up to them on a regular basis,” Ford said. “If they can get rid of us, they can have free reign over government, which is a scary concept.”
The Florida Education Association has already spearheaded two other lawsuits related to new laws passed this year by the Legislature. The first was a lawsuit opposing the new requirement that public employees contribute 3 percent of their salaries toward a retirement plan and the second was a suit over a proposed constitutional amendment that could pave the way for public dollars to be spent on private religious schools.
Ford said efforts by the Legislature to weaken unions have been unsuccessful.
“Last year, we recruited more members to this organization than any period in our history,” Ford said. The FEA has recruited 6,000 more members since Scott became Governor, bringing total membership to about 142,000, he said.
The 15-page lawsuit filed Wednesday over merit pay will be closely watched by teachers throughout the state.
The new law eliminated the use of long-term contracts for teachers, putting new teachers on annual contracts. It also sets up a new system for evaluating teacher performance. The crux of the system would require schools to rate teachers on four performance levels from unsatisfactory to highly effective, using student test scores to determine 50 percent of that rating and an in-person evaluation of the teacher for the other half.
The FEA said the new law was passed despite strong opposition from teachers, and it removes the longtime practice of allowing school districts to negotiate locally with unions on teacher pay, contracts and other benefits.
By prescribing how school districts must evaluate and pay teachers, it removes the ability of teachers to collectively bargain, said FEA attorney Ron Meyer.
“I’m reminded of what is attributed to Henry Ford when he rolled out the Model T,” Meyer said. “It can be any color as long as it’s black. That is what we are telling public employees in this state. You can bargain anything you want as long as it looks like this. That is not effective collective bargaining.”
Meyer said this case gets “right to the heart of the collective bargaining process,” and he predicted the final judgment would be determined by the Florida Supreme Court.
Ford said the teacher’s union doesn’t oppose merit pay, just the way it was established in Florida.
The teacher’s union signed off on some parts of the federal Race to The Top Grant, which contained some of the same elements of the teacher merit pay law. But Ford said that doesn’t equal support for legislative changes.
“What the Legislature decided to do last year was to overstep Race to the Top and put it into state law and make it mandatory for everybody in the state to do it, whether it was a good idea or not,” Ford said.
He also objected to the quick passage of the bill without input from teachers. It was the first bill passed by the Legislature this year and no amendments by Democrats were approved from the House and Senate floors.
A similar bill passed the Legislature last year, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
One Democrat, Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, cheered the FEA’s decision to file a lawsuit.
“While teachers, school officials and Democrats throughout the state were unable to stop Republican leaders from cramming this legislation into law, I remain hopeful that the courts will give it a fitting funeral,” Bullard said.
The lawsuit was technically filed by five teachers and one school speech therapist from across Florida, but the Florida Education Association will be paying for the attorneys to fight the case.
Beth Weatherstone is one of those teachers that joined the lawsuit. The 8th grade algebra teacher in Indian River County said she is concerned about the influence of student test scores on her evaluation. Though the merit pay system may not apply to her salary because she is an existing teacher, it could influence how she is rated.
“I am a good teacher, I have been teaching for 32 years,” Weatherstone said. “I have good results with my students and they don’t always show up on FCAT scores.” That’s because she teaches algebra and FCAT tests on other math concepts, such as geometry, she said. Because students now also take algebra end-of-course exams that are required for promotion to the next grade level, she prefers to focus on that test over the FCAT.
But it’s the FCAT, she believes, that will impact how she is rated.
The FEA indicated its willingness to fight merit pay every step of the way. Meyer said the union is also mulling a lawsuit over the details of the merit pay system itself, in addition to this suit on collective bargaining.
“We are looking at other aspects of this law and in particular, the validity of using the testing, the value-added formulas,” Meyer said. He called the formula “voodoo” and said there hasn’t been enough testing of the concept.
By Lilly Rockwell