Former Washington, D.C., public school chancellor Michelle Rhee hit Tallahassee Wednesday, promoting her tough-on-teachers brand of school reform to the Florida legislature.
Rhee, now an informal adviser to Gov. Rick Scott, addressed a problem during her tenure as chancellor that legislators face this session: How can you save money on schools while also improving their quality?
Funding is not necessarily correlated with quality, according to Rhee, so Scott’s proposed budget cuts aren’t as worrying as inefficiencies in the education system. Right now, Florida is throwing away money on programs that don’t improve education for students.
Limits on class size aren’t helpful above second grade, she said. Rather than paying a premium for teachers with master’s degrees, schools should reward the teachers who add the most value to students’ education. What matters is that teachers and schools are held accountable.
According to Rhee, schools should have the ability to get rid of teachers who aren’t “adding value.” Parents should be given power to convert failing schools to charter schools by a majority vote. Districts should be prevented from blocking new charter schools.
“If we are truly going to empower parents we cannot force any parent to keep their children in a failing school,” Rhee said. Competition makes the system better.
When she faced a round of budget cuts in Washington’s schools, she opted to save money by laying off teachers, and doing it on the basis of performance rather than seniority.
As Gov. Scott backed away from the constitutionally questionable idea of “universal vouchers,” according to the St. Petersburg Times, “Rhee encouraged lawmakers to abolish teacher tenure, fire the worst 8 percent of teachers and then watch student achievement soar.”
Protections for ineffective teachers, she said, have frustrated efforts to improve schools.
State Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, who is a teacher, had a concern. Under Senate Bill 736, the “merit pay” bill set to come up for its first committee vote today, schools can let go of teachers regardless of how they perform on effectiveness measures.
“I want to know that there’s some level of job security, because I love the kids, and I’m doing the work,” he said.
Rhee said teaching should be evaluated like other professions. Just because stockbrokers are “effective” doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed employment. If schools have access to objective measures, principals would be “nuts” not to hire teachers that perform well.
Bullard said after the meeting that teachers aren’t like stockbrokers. They go into the profession knowing they will never earn six-figure salaries. Many teachers don’t have a problem with merit pay per se, he said. They just don’t want it combined with reforms that make it easier for them to lose their jobs.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the Senate greeted Rhee as a “movie star”:
Lawmakers lauded her for political courage and willingness “to take the heat.”
Her No. 1 word of caution: “If you’d like to learn from one of the mistakes I made in particular, make it as clear as possible that you are not out to get teachers when you talk about and create policies that reflect how incredible their influence is.”