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State: Each school district must review teachers' eligibility for 'Best & Brightest' bonuses

By Kristen M. Clark
Miami Herald file photo
By Dec. 1, each school district must tell the state Department of Education how many classroom teachers they have eligible for the "Best and Brightest" bonuses.

The Florida Department of Education says it will be up to each of the state's 67 county school districts to determine which of their local teachers is eligible for the state "Best and Brightest" bonus program that lawmakers revamped as part of a massive education law that took effect this summer.

Hershel Lyons, Florida's chancellor of public schools, issued guidance to school district superintendents through a two-page memo last week that details how the revised and expanded program should be implemented. It's the latest in a trickle of memos from the DOE that explain how school districts should make sure they comply with the plethora of new education policy in House Bill 7069.

In addition to the original "Best and Brightest" bonus that was first enacted two years ago and is based on teachers' own SAT/ACT scores, HB 7069 calls for top teachers to also get extra money each year for simply being evaluated as "effective" or "highly effective."

All "highly effective" teachers will now get $1,200 bonuses, while "effective" teachers can get "up to $800," under the new law.

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"Highly effective" teachers can also still receive bonuses of $6,000 if they can show they scored in the 80th percentile or above when they took the SAT or ACT -- either in high school or more recently, if they choose to retake the exam. (A change to the program that reduces that threshold to the 77th percentile and makes it easier for teachers to qualify using other exams and criteria does not take effect until the 2020-2021 school year.)

"Each scholarship has its own eligibility requirements that districts must review and administer locally," Lyons wrote to the districts on Aug. 11.

Teachers seeking the $6,000 have until Nov. 1 to submit their SAT/ACT score report to their local school district, Lyons wrote. Then by Dec. 1, each district must tell the DOE how many classroom teachers they have eligible for the "Best and Brightest" awards.

Lyons said the DOE will disburse the award dollars to districts by Feb. 1, so that eligible teachers can receive their bonuses on April 1, 2018.

The expanded "Best and Brightest" program also includes new bonuses for top principals, but guidance on how that will be implemented isn't available yet. "Information regarding the Best and Brightest Principal Scholarship Program will be sent in the near future," Lyons wrote.

Neither Lyons' memo nor other guidance to date from the DOE has addressed a concern raised by Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho relating to how teachers' evaluations should be calculated under the new law -- an issue that, Carvalho said, could effect whether teachers know if they are eligible for the bonuses.

Another part of HB 7069 eliminated a state mandate requiring teachers to be evaluated based on a state-approved formula known as the "value-added model," or VAM, but state law still requires teachers' evaluations to factor in student performance. "So if not VAM, then what?" Carvalho asked last month, noting teachers' final evaluations could be delayed in the interim.

House Republicans -- who have fought for the bonus program since lawmakers first enacted it through the 2015-16 state budget -- say "Best and Brightest" is a way to reward good teachers, but the program has been heavily criticized by teachers' unions and other groups.

Critics argue a one-time bonus -- even annually -- isn't as good as an actual and permanent bump in salary, which they say would benefit teachers more. They've also complained about tying the bonus to teachers' SAT/ACT results, saying a teacher's performance on a single exam isn't an indicator of one's ability to be an effective teacher.