'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate
A controversial bonus plan that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their ACT/SAT scores faces a tough fight in the Florida Senate -- and that battle is bogging down a massive education bill that Sen. Don Gaetz wants to use as a vehicle to permanently extend the "Best & Brightest" bonuses.
Rank-and-file senators in both parties are, at least, reluctant or, at most, altogether opposed to the program. Echoing other critics, they argue it's not a fair way to reward teachers, since there's no proven correlation between teachers' high school test scores and their ability to be good teachers.
But Senate Republican leaders say they want to make a "good faith effort" to support "Best & Brightest" because it's a priority for House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who's in line to become House Speaker in November.
"The process works best when we respect each chamber's priorities, as much as we respect our own," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said this evening.
Gaetz's education bill (SB 524) that includes "Best & Brightest" -- among a dozen other policy proposals -- was scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor today, but dozens of amendments were added to it as late as this morning. Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, asked for his bill to be postponed so senators could digest the myriad proposed changes.
The bill could come back up again as early as Thursday as part of the Senate's "Special Order" calendar.
Among the proposed amendments to SB 524 are efforts by several senators to either strip the "Best & Brightest" bonuses entirely from the bill or, if that fails, significantly change the eligibility criteria, so that teachers could be awarded based on different benchmarks.
Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, is sponsoring the amendment to take "Best & Brightest" out of Gaetz's bill, which could effectively end the idea of permanently extending it this session. He said senators have "significant reservations" about the bonus plan, and as of earlier today, he was believed to have had the votes to kill it.
"It's going to be razor close," Legg said.
The House approved an education bill in February that included a provision to permanently extend the bonus program.
Although he's opposed to it, Legg proposed standalone legislation on "Best & Brightest" this session, so that senators could debate and vote on it -- an opportunity they didn't have last year. The program was enacted for one year through the budget.
As this year's policy debate unfolds, lawmakers are simultaneously working on the budget for next year -- where it's very likely "Best & Brightest" could once again surface in the implementing language. That would extend the proposal for another year.
That prospect was floated during budget negotiations over the weekend.
And Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said today he "absolutely would" consider that route for a second year in a row.
"Because it's a priority of my counterpart in the House," Lee said, referencing Corcoran. "I believe that one of the obligations we have is, on the margins, to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt when we can. ... He deserves some deference on those things, as we're asking him to give us deference on things that are important to the Senate."
But that maneuver would be a no-go for many senators.
Legg raised concerns about it when Gaetz broached it as an option on Sunday, and Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said today that would be "a tough swallow" for Democrats, as well.
"Close to a majority of the Senate has issues with the way 'Best & Brightest' was implemented last year and thinks we shouldn't be rewarding teachers based on a test they took 20 years ago," Clemens said. "I don't know who (Lee is) speaking for."