Florida senators seek to refine Best and Brightest teacher bonus
Since its inception, the Florida Best and Brightest teacher bonus has faced heavy skepticism from members of the Florida Senate, who refused to write the House-inspired program into law.
On Wednesday, some key senators indicated their interest in recrafting the model as part of an effort to improve teacher pay in the state's public schools.
"We need to continue searching to get the right answer on how to do this," said Sen. David Simmons, Education Appropriations chairman. "We need to increase this program and tweak it, and at the same time provide a mechanism so we can in fact tremendously reward our teachers."
He suggested the panel would look at ideas such as expanding the base of eligible teachers and redefining the criteria to qualify for the money. In its first two years, the bonus was given to teachers rated highly effective on their evaluations who also scored in the top 20 percent on their SAT or ACT exam. Many educators criticized the use of college entrance exams, saying those did not indicate which teachers were high performing and had reached the top of their profession.
"I want it to be something that people inherently look at and say, 'This is a fair program,'" Simmons said.
Others on the committee agreed, including Democrat Sen. Bill Montford, who heads the state superintendents association.
"If we truly want to recognize teachers financially, the way to do it is put money into the program," Montford said. "In fact, the $49 million we put into it this year may not be enough."
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, noted so much of the discussion comes down to available money. The Florida House is discussing budget cuts for the coming year. He wondered whether superintendents testifying before the committee had any ideas of places to cut, in order to redirect funding to teacher pay.
Palm Beach County superintendent Robert Avossa asked that the lawmakers not take a one-size-fits-all approach, noting that all districts face different financial issues. At the same time, Avossa said, he would like whatever solution emerges to help teachers find some consistency and predictability in pay.
For 2016, more teachers qualified for a smaller Best and Brightest bonus than in 2015.
Lee pointedly asked if anyone would oppose testing reductions to find money for teacher salaries. No arguments arose to that idea.
Education commissioner Pam Stewart noted the Florida Board of Education has called for changes to the bonus program, and said her office has been researching possible alternative methods to reward top performing teachers and also recruit top candidates. Stewart said she is formulating recommendations and is willing to work with the Senate to formulate a new approach.
Simmons made clear that the goal is not to kill Best and Brightest, but to improve it in order to "achieve the goals the House has so admirably tried to achieve." He said the discussion will continue in future meetings.
See the committee meeting packet for more information about the discussion on teacher salaries, including merit pay.