Florida teachers union says new 'Best and Brightest' bonus program discriminates

Teachers challenge the standards set by the Best and Brightest program.
State Rep. Erik Fresen of Miami pushed for the bonus money.
State Rep. Erik Fresen of Miami pushed for the bonus money.
Published December 22 2015
Updated December 22 2015

Florida's Best and Brightest teacher scholarship program had its critics from the moment it became law last summer.

It set aside $44 million to give teachers up to $10,000 in bonus money if they received a "highly effective" rating on their annual evaluations and scored at or above the 80th percentile on the SAT or ACT.

But some teachers hadn't even taken the tests when they were preparing to enter college. Many others had to scramble to get their scores by Oct. 1. Others questioned the practice of basing a professional bonus on a test they took as high school students. And many said the rating system itself is flawed.

The Florida Education Association raised those and other criticisms Monday in a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

The union said the program discriminates against teachers over 40 because no percentile data is available from the ACT or SAT for teachers who took these tests before 1972, and many struggled to access their scores by the deadline. It said first-year teachers had the upper hand, too, because they were exempted from the "highly effective" evaluation qualification, and many of those teachers are under 40.

Best and Brightest also discriminates against African-American and Hispanic teachers, the union alleged, because the SAT and ACT are "racially/culturally biased tests that disparately impact test-takers" of those races. The complaint said there was no correlation between performance on those exams and teacher performance.

The FEA is seeking to ensure all qualified teachers have access to the money, which is to be distributed for the first time in the spring. About 5,200 teachers have been deemed eligible by their districts, putting them in line for about $8,500 each.

"Put together a system that makes it fair to everyone," said FEA president Joanne McCall. A better solution, she said, is to put the money into the state's budget formula.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who pushed for the scholarships, said in a statement that he looked forward to continuing to provide the program for teachers.

"It is unfortunate that the teachers' unions constantly oppose any payment structure effort that is not based on time served," wrote Fresen, who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "It's akin to the infantile argument of 'If I can't have any, neither can you.' "

An EEOC spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said she was prohibited by law from confirming or denying the existence of discrimination charge filings.

The Florida Department of Education said it had not received a copy of the union's complaint. "The department has no comment other than to state that, as always, the department will cooperate fully with any required regulatory process or review," spokeswoman Meghan Collins said.

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo said he encouraged his members to submit a checklist to the FEA if they felt discriminated against by the scholarship.

"It's ludicrous, it's stupid, it made absolutely no sense," he said. "They need to fund education properly, not waste it on nonsensical things like this."

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, suggested the money would be better spent on the fees associated with helping teachers become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Such funding was cut off during the recession and participation in the program has dropped.

"I guess that overall, any program that in any way rewards teachers is positive," she said. "But we need to find ways to do it in a fair and equitable manner."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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