Should teachers be paid more if they're working in high-needs schools?
The chairman of the state Senate education committee says yes — if they're doing it well. And he plans on crafting legislation to give them that opportunity.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he would like next year's Legislature to consider incorporating "differential pay" into existing state programs that affect teacher pay, including one for high-performing teachers, another for national board certified teachers and a third that rewards schools for making or maintaining high grades. He said he has discussed the idea with Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith and will be fleshing out the details in coming months.
"When you send somebody in the private sector to a tough situation to turn it around, we call them turnaround artists," said Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent. "The least we can do for teachers who take up a tough challenge and a tough mission … is to treat them like turnaround artists and give them the opportunity to earn extra compensation."
Gaetz's idea comes two years after a legislative directive for differential pay that three out of four local districts, including Pinellas, have ignored.
It also comes as several recent St. Petersburg Times stories have raised concerns about whether students in high-needs schools have teachers as good as the ones in more affluent schools.
"Your reporting reveals that we have a very important question that we have to answer, which is: Are we deploying teacher resources in the best place?" Gaetz said.
Many teachers like the idea of earning more money for working in tough schools. A 2007 survey by the independent think tank Education Sector, for example, found that 80 percent of teachers strongly or somewhat favor the concept.
And yet, meaningful differential pay programs can be hard to find.
In 2006, the Florida Legislature directed every school district to come up with such a program by the 2007-08 school year. Hillsborough already had a program. It pays teachers 5 to 10 percent more if they remain in one of two dozen high poverty schools.
But Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties did not have programs. And they still don't.
Ron Stone, the associate superintendent in Pinellas in charge of human resources, blamed budget woes.
"Supplements for demographics can be extremely costly and are an ongoing requirement once they have been made part of the salary schedule," he wrote in an e-mail. "We knew that the budget situation was brewing and would probably last several years, especially in light of our four-year history of declining enrollment."
Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, predicted that the mandate would "go on the dust heap."
The legislation does not include a penalty for non-compliance.
Currently, all three state programs that affect teacher pay reward teachers the same amount of money, whether they're teaching in gritty south St. Petersburg or glitzy South Tampa.
The state spent $81-million last year on bonuses for national board certified teachers and allocated $32-million this year for the controversial Merit Award Program (MAP). The latter awards teacher bonuses based on student test scores and principal evaluations.
The state also parceled out $129-million last year in "school recognition money," which annually rewards schools that make or maintain high grades. Much of that money is converted into teacher bonuses.
Gaetz said he would like the Legislature to consider a matrix of some kind that would give teachers in high-needs schools the opportunity to earn more money based on the school's performance and the teacher's performance. For example, a high-needs school that earned school recognition money might get 125 percent or 150 percent of a typical school's take, he said.
Gaetz also said he wants to give districts the ability to customize the new approach "so they can deploy their resources to get the best student performance."
"If you craft that kind of flexibility into it, it might be something we want to look at," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers union.
Supporters hope differential pay can help high-needs schools attract and keep better teachers. Recent Times stories highlighted the problem.
A Times analysis of national board certified teachers — often considered the best of the best — found them clumped in more affluent schools.
Another Times review found that more than 60 percent of the 1,500 Tampa Bay teachers who transferred this summer went to schools with fewer poor kids.
Bigger bonuses aren't the only thing districts should offer to keep teachers at those schools, said retired Pinellas teacher Joan Brown. But they're a start.
"I feel some teachers aren't recognized for what they do," said Brown, who volunteers at Eisenhower Elementary, an A school in Clearwater where 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. "Everybody realizes how hard it is to teach in those schools."
Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.