By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Fla (Reuters) - Following weeks of debate and national attention, Florida Governor Rick Scott on Thursday signed into law a measure that will end tenure for new public school teachers and base pay more directly on student test scores.
The bill is the first Scott, a Republican, has signed since taking office in January.
He said the law will improve the ranks of teachers by rewarding the most ambitious and competent while maintaining job protections for current teachers who don't want to change.
"We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher," Scott said in a statement following the signing.
Teachers hired after July 1, 2014, will work under annual contracts instead of receiving tenure after three years.
Existing teachers could opt to stay in the seniority-based system or have the ability to earn more money by shifting to annual contracts.
The new law requires at least half of a teacher's evaluation to be based on student learning gains instead of determined solely by principal or peer review. Teachers in targeted subjects such as math and science will earn more.
The merit-pay proposal pitted Scott and the Republican-led Legislature against the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
"Florida is rated the fifth-best state on quality of our public schools by Education Week's Quality Counts report, despite the fact that the state is ranked close to the bottom in funding for schools and teacher pay," said Andy Ford, president of the statewide teachers union.
"That the response to this good news is yet another attack on our teachers is beyond belief," he said.
In Tennessee, the state House on Thursday passed a bill that would make it more difficult for teachers there to get tenure.
The bill, pushed by Republican Governor Bill Haslam and previously passed by the Senate, requires teachers to work five years instead of three to achieve tenure. It also creates an evaluation procedure that could lead to revoking tenure based on poor job performance.
(Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)