Siding with two teachers and a union, a state judge found Wednesday that Florida education officials did not properly carry out part of a 2011 law that has fueled a long-running controversy about linking teacher performance and pay.
Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham, in a 57-page order, rejected a state-approved rule that would spell out how school districts should evaluate teachers, declaring it "wholly invalid" because of flaws in the way it was pieced together.
"Material procedural flaws, such as those described in this final order, taint the resulting rule in its entirety and cannot be cured without starting over and redoing the process,'' Van Laningham wrote.
The order deals with the somewhat-arcane process of state agencies, such as the Department of Education, adopting rules to carry out the details of broader legislation. Van Laningham did not reject the underlying law, only the rule that included requirements for how school districts should measure teacher performance.
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union, issued a statement after Van Laningham's ruling, calling it a "huge victory in our battle for fair, reliable and valid evaluations."
"It's time for the state's education bureaucracy to stop trying to impose its will on teachers and administrators and start having a meaningful dialogue with us to put together a fair evaluation system that is understandable, valid and accepted,'' Ford said.
The FEA, Okaloosa County teacher Karen Peek and Indian River County teacher Beth Weatherstone filed the challenge March 30, after the state Board of Education signed off on the rule.
The challenge is part of a bigger fight about the Republican-controlled Legislature's move last year to use student test scores and other criteria to evaluate teacher performance and link it to pay.
The law, dubbed the "Student Success Act," gave the Department of Education the role of approving and monitoring evaluation systems that districts use. It also included criteria that will lead, in part, to teacher performance being tagged as highly effective, effective, "needs improvement," or unsatisfactory.
Many teachers and the FEA unsuccessfully argued against passage of the law. The union also has helped spearhead a constitutional challenge to the law in Leon County Circuit Court. That lawsuit is pending.
Anthony Demma, an attorney for the teachers and union in the rule case, said school districts have already put in place teacher-evaluation processes as part of the federal Race to the Top program.
Demma said he thinks that with Van Laningham's order, those teacher-evaluation standards will remain in place this school year. He said it likely would be difficult to revise the invalidated rule and move forward with new requirements during the course of the year.
Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said in an email that the agency was reviewing the order.
Van Laningham focused heavily on how the department strung together the rule. State law requires proposed rules to be published. But Van Laningham found the department did not properly incorporate some key teacher-evaluation requirements in the published information about the rule, instead linking to material on the department's website.