Senators debate 'Best and Brightest' teacher bonuses
Mirroring other actions in the early days of the 2016 session to encourage friendly relations between the House and Senate, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, invited the House's education budget chairman to join senators in a discussion Wednesday about the controversial "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program.
Legg, chairman of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, acknowledged the "unorthodox move," but said he wanted to hear directly from Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, about the 1-year-old program, which is Fresen's brainchild and which House leaders want to continue.
"It is a good-faith effort to work with the House on a priority of their's," said Legg, one of several senators questionable of the program.
During an hourlong discussion, Fresen defended the teacher bonus plan, which critics allege was snuck into this year's budget during the special budget session over the summer. He refuted that and cited several committee hearings in the House last spring, in which the program was debated in various forms.
But such hearings never occurred in the Senate, so Wednesday was among members' first opportunities to debate the program.
Lawmakers allocated $44 million for the 2015-16 budget to give bonuses to the state's "Best and Brightest" teachers -- those who scored in the top 20 percent of their year when they took SAT or ACT exams in high school. For teachers who are more than a year into the job, they'd also have to be rated as "high-performing" in order to be eligible for the cash.
More than 5,300 teachers statewide qualified in the program's inaugural year. They're each due to receive $8,256.27 in April, according to the Department of Education.
The bonus plan has come under intense scrutiny and has sparked a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The FEA argues the program discriminates against older teachers and minority teachers because they're less likely to be eligible.
Fresen's effort to see the "Best and Brightest" program continue faces hurdles in both the House and Senate this year, and its chances are unclear.
Senators on Wednesday -- both Republicans and Democrats -- probed the mechanics of the program, and many said it didn't make sense, particularly when there's no direct correlation between effective teachers and those who score well on standardized exams.
"I know people who scored perfect on their SAT, and they couldn’t teach anyone anything. They’re just good on pencil and paper," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.
Fresen, in his presentation, explained: "Common sense would tell you that a smarter person may do a better job teaching."
He said he wants the bonus money to incentivize young, smart Floridians to enter the teaching profession and stay there as they get older. He says less than 10 percent of top students in Florida seek to become teachers and he wants that number to rise to 20-30 percent.
"I applaud your idea to recruit more people, but I don’t see this accomplishing that goal," Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said. "If I knew I could make an extra $8,000, I’m not going to say ‘To heck with Goldman Sachs, I’m going into teaching.' It doesn’t work that way."
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, also asked why teachers should be judged on a test they might have taken years -- or even decades -- ago, while first-year teachers are eligible without any experience.
Legg told reporters after the hearing that that's one of the sticking points for him as well.
"I've seen in schools and from the teachers I've worked with that the way it's presently being implemented, it is having an adverse effect on high-quality teachers because they feel as though they're not being valued, even though the data shows they're excelling, but they may not be in the 80th percentile," Legg said.
Fresen told senators that lawmakers can consider it a "signing bonus" for first-year teachers. Clemens suggested eligibility for the bonus should be delayed a few years so teacher experience can be factored in.
Legg said he promised Fresen and Land O'Lakes Republican Rep. Richard Corcoran -- who's slated to be House Speaker next year -- there would be a fair hearing on the issue, not that it would necessarily pass.
"I believe genuinely that this committee needed to weigh in," said Legg, who filed the bill for the program to be considered in teh Senate this session.
Legg wants a vote on that proposal next week, which continues the bonus plan but lowers the threshold of eligibility to teachers who scored in at least the 60th percentile of their class on ACT/SAT exams.