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Politics

'Disruptive' Teachers Union Lawsuit Won't Wash, Say Supporters

September 13, 2011 - 6:00pm

The law that bases a teachers pay on performance is constitutional, backers said Wednesday after the state teachers union filed suit to challenge provisions of the new merit rule.

The Florida Education Association and the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association filed a lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court contending provisions in the law passed this year are unconstitutional, claiming they deny teachers the right to collectively bargain for wages, terms and conditions of employment.

Supporters of the law, Senate Bill 736, were quick to confirm their belief the law is constitutional and that the education revision modernizes Floridas teaching profession by rewarding effective and dedicated professionals.

This law benefits teachers and students, Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Floridas Future, a nonprofit policy organization founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, said in a statement Wednesday.

Todays action by the teachers union once again proves they care more about protecting political power than promoting a dynamic, highly skilled workforce of educators, Levesque added.

In another statement Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scotts spokesman Lane Wright expressed confidence the rule is on solid legal footing.

Regular working folks dont have tenure. Why should bad teachers? Wright said. Governor Scott is looking out for students -- making sure they get the best teachers in the classroom, while the special-interest teachers' union is looking out for bad teachers who pay their union dues.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, called the lawsuit disruptive.

In a release Wednesday, he said the law was the result of exhaustive meetings through 2010 and the 2011 session.

During this time, Senator (Stephen) Wise (R-Jacksonville) worked hard to reach out to all of the stakeholders in the education field and ensure they had a seat at the table, including the FEA, Haridopolos stated. I think many people would find it surprising that the FEA would choose to file a lawsuit now, as opposed to constructively engaging and contributing to the legislative process.

The teachers union that represents more than 140,000 members claims SB 736, which replaces long-term contracts with individual one-year contracts, sweeps away the right of employees to negotiate their employment as guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.

The changes that lawmakers pushed through should have been collectively bargained between school districts and teachers, said Andy Ford, state FEA president, in a release.

Article 1, Section 6 of the Florida Constitution states: The right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or non-membership in any labor union or labor organization. The right of employees, by and through a labor organization, to bargain collectively shall not be denied or abridged. Public employees shall not have the right to strike.

Five teachers and one speech therapist are technically the plaintiffs for the lawsuit.

One of the plaintiffs, Cory Williams, a middle school social studies teacher from Sarasota County, said provisions of SB 736 wont improve the teaching profession.

The expertise and knowledge of teachers have been ignored throughout this process and our constitutional rights have been trampled, Williams said. We must turn to the court to tell the Legislature and the governor that they cannot simply take away the rights that are embedded in the Florida Constitution.

State Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, endorsed the teachers union action.

The law undermines collective bargaining, Bullard said. Were a right-to-work state, were not talking about people who are going to go out on strike. All they want to do is make sure they can bargain for a fair wage, and put food on the table.

Bullard said he intends to file a bill for the 2012 session seeking to repeal the law to give my colleagues an opportunity to do the right thing for the teachers of Florida.

He admits he doesnt expect the bill to gain much traction in the coming session.

In addition to the state of Florida, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, the state Board of Education and the Department of Education are named as defendants.

Tom Butler, Department of Education director of communications, stated the agency intends to vigorously defend the law.

Although we have not been served yet, we believe strongly in the new law and its focus on improving student achievement, recognizing our most effective teachers and identifying teachers who would benefit from additional professional development opportunities, Butler said in a released statement.

School districts are required to have the law, which is to base teacher evaluations in part on student improvement, in place by 2014.

Not everyone was willing to chime in. Katie Betta, spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon, said the office couldnt comment due to the pending litigation.

The lawsuit is not the first between Floridas Republican leadership and the teachers union, generally considered more Democratic.

Earlier this year, the FEA filed lawsuits against the states law requiring public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the states retirement plan and a proposed constitutional amendment that could allow public dollars to go to private religious schools.

Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the merit performance law is designed to transform the way tomorrows workforce is educated.

The world is changing, and the future of Floridas economy is all about talent, Wilson said in a statement released Wednesday. Its unfortunate that the labor union claiming to represent teachers has resisted every meaningful education reform effort for more than a decade. Now, they are going to spend money fighting one of the most important education reforms this country has ever seen.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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