A surprise piece of legislation emerged in Florida Friday that would bar community colleges in the state from awarding tenure to faculty members.
The bill will receive its first hearing today, and while it is a long way from passage, it arrives at a time when Florida lawmakers have shown considerable willingness to wipe out job protections for educators. Just weeks ago, the Legislature approved a ban on multiyear contracts for elementary and secondary school teachers, effectively ending tenure in the state's K-12 system.
Indeed in interviews after the final House of Representatives vote on that bill, Dean Cannon, the speaker of the House, said that he had heard interest from community college presidents in applying the idea to their institutions, and that he believed the idea had "merit."
The House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee released the new bill on community colleges on Friday -- and scheduled today's hearing without informing faculty or community college groups, officials said. (Many of what were once community colleges in Florida now offer four-year degrees, and some have stopped calling themselves community colleges; the legislation would apply to all 28 institutions in the Florida College System, regardless of whether they have started four-year programs.) Subcommittee members could not be reached for comment on the bill and did not respond to inquiries from Florida reporters.
Ed Mitchell, executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, a statewide faculty union, said that the organization was taking the legislation "very seriously" in light of the strong anti-tenure views expressed by legislators. He said that several Democratic legislators said Monday that they were opposed to the bill, but that the Republicans have sufficient strength to pass the legislation without Democratic support. (The union is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.)
Mitchell said that the legislation bans the colleges from awarding tenure to anyone who doesn't have it now. He said that while the language suggests an intent to strip tenure from those who currently have it, he believes that the current wording might not do so, because it bans the awarding of any multiyear contracts and doesn't seem to reflect the reality that currently tenured faculty members don't have expiring contracts.
Currently, he said, about 75 percent of full-time faculty members at Florida's colleges have tenure, and the remainder are on the tenure track.
Mitchell stressed that tenure did not mean that faculty members have no accountability. Tenure is awarded after reviews, he said, and procedures are set by the various colleges. "It's not a job for life. It just means that you have a continuing employment contract that requires just cause for termination," he said.
Noting that pay at Florida's colleges already lags the levels of other states, Mitchell quipped that those teaching could carry signs that read: "I'm here for low pay and no job security."
Are there the votes to abolish tenure at the colleges? Mitchell said that given the quiet arrival of the bill, he can't be certain, but added that "I don't think we can underestimate the determination to bust up tenure, the unions and hurt the teaching profession." (Separate legislation in Florida may threaten those faculty unions that do not have 50 percent of eligible members enrolled.)