About two years ago, state Rep. Erik Fresen picked up Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World to read on the plane.
The Miami Republican had no inkling at the time that the book, an investigation into student performance, would end up driving a controversial $44 million line item in Florida's 2015-16 budget.
But as he plowed through it, Fresen found a common denominator among nations with top academic performance: well-paid teachers with high aptitudes. So he proposed Florida's Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarships, worth as much as $10,000 each.
To qualify, a teacher must receive a "highly effective" evaluation rating and have scored at or above the 80th percentile on the SAT or ACT they took in high school. For new teachers, just the test score would count.
"It's just another carrot, another incentive to try to keep the best teachers in the field," Fresen said, adding it could also attract top students to teaching.
Though called a scholarship, it's not for continuing education but is actually a bonus to a teacher's annual salary.
The idea died during the Legislature's spring session, gaining no traction in the doubtful Senate. But it returned in the budget special session this month, becoming one of the final trade-offs in settling the state's education spending plan.
The outcome left many teacher leaders both surprised that the bill had survived and dismayed at what they viewed as bad policy.
No fans of the state's performance pay system, several said the new scholarship doesn't follow lawmakers' stated preference for rewarding outcomes. The Legislature stopped allowing higher salaries for advanced degrees because of that philosophy.
To award extra pay based on a test taken as a high schooler, therefore, made little sense to some, especially for veteran teachers in their 30s and older.
"A college entrance exam from high school is not a suitable or appropriate predictor for which of those smart students are going to be great teachers," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
She also couldn't miss that the amount of a Best and Brightest scholarship came close to the added pay teachers used to get after earning National Board certification. Lawmakers stopped budgeting for that program, which many deemed more meaningful than a master's degree, arguing the certification did not have a strong correlation to student outcomes.
"These individuals went through a grueling process that showed they were the tops in their field. But that was swept aside," Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said. "Now, we have this."
Faye Cook, a fifth-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary in Plant City, benefited from the National Board certification bonus and regularly receives top evaluations for her work. But she said she could not receive a Best and Brightest scholarship.
"I have no ACT or SAT score," she explained. "I never took it."
Like many Floridians, Cook began her higher education at a community college, which did not require the national tests. She took a placement exam instead.
"I don't know what the thinking is behind why that was put forth," said Cook, who took to Facebook to criticize the new program. "But to pay a bonus based on a high school score, but not on National Board certification, that's just such a contradiction."
She's not the only one to use social media to pan the initiative. Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle, who regularly comments on public education issues, repeatedly blasted the idea as perhaps the worst one of the legislative session.
"My primary concern with the program is that it will lock out some wonderful teaching prospects," he said. "These are students who, for whatever reason, did poorly on their SAT or ACT in high school, but who have matured to become first-rate students and leaders among their peers."
Many supporters point to Finland and Singapore for examples of where the "best and brightest" approach works. Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg took issue with that view.
Florida's proposal is the wrong way to accomplish its goals, Sahlberg said in an email, "and certainly not found in any education systems that have succeeded to enhance the quality of teachers and attractiveness of the teaching profession."
SAT and ACT scores have no correlation to teacher quality, he said, nor do they test for the knowledge associated with good teaching. He also suggested that a $10,000 bonus is unlikely to keep top educators from leaving, as research indicates that teacher retention is about workplace satisfaction, not salary.
"Certainly there is no research or 'what works elsewhere' evidence behind this idea," said Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "This is a waste of money that could be used more effectively elsewhere."
Florida had 68,373 teachers rated highly effective in 2013-14, the most recent numbers available. If more teachers qualify for the Best and Brightest scholarship than 4,400, the amount would be prorated and they would receive less than the $10,000.
Fresen acknowledged his idea had some shortcomings. It won't reward every highly effective teacher, he said, and certain provisions of performance pay don't affect all teachers equally.
Only a one-year expense so far, Fresen expected lawmakers to adopt a bill next year to continue it and improve the model.
It will be a success, he said, if teens leaving high school "perhaps get incentivized and get excited about going into something like teaching."
Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo contended a better approach would be to get Florida closer to the national average for per student education funding.
"If they did that, they could pay teachers what they're worth, and they would attract the best and brightest," Gandolfo said.
Until that day comes, though, he's pragmatic. It's hard to turn down extra pay, he said — even from a program he questions.
"I'm going to encourage everybody I know who could be eligible to apply for it," Gandolfo said. "If they're going to give the money away, I'd rather it be my members."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.