TALLAHASSEE — More top educators in Florida would have a crack at an annual state bonus in the 2017-2018 school year, under initial proposals to expand a controversial, 2-year-old teacher incentive program.
To entice and reward the "Best & Brightest" teachers and — for the first time — principals to work in Florida public schools, lawmakers still want educators to demonstrate not only "highly effective" teaching skills, but also personal academic prowess to qualify for the extra cash.
Teachers and principals who tested well on the SAT/ACT in high school could still use those scores as one way to meet the requirements and, going forward, lawmakers want to also let them use other similar benchmarks — such as qualifying scores on graduate school entrance exams or teacher certification tests.
The inclusion of principals in the program is critical to expanding it, said state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman and is shepherding the House measure.
"We know the No. 1 factor in the student's life is the quality of the teacher, but the No. 1 factor in getting teachers to those schools is the quality of the leadership," Diaz said
How many additional teachers and principals might be eligible under an expanded program is unknown — as is how much expansion of "Best & Brightest" would cost taxpayers or how it would be paid for.
One key senator revealed last month the House's intent — with Senate support — is to pour as much as $250 million into expanding "Best & Brightest" next year. That's five times the $49 million lawmakers approved this year.
Altamonte Springs Republican David Simmons, the Senate's Pre-K-12 education budget chairman, reaffirmed that pledge on Wednesday when the Senate's proposal was released. House leaders said Friday an estimated cost hadn't been determined.
The "Best & Brightest" program — the brainchild of current House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — has been the subject of intense criticism since it was established in 2015.
Teachers union leaders and some lawmakers in both parties have complained that teachers' personal academics and their performance in the classroom ought not to be linked.
The Florida Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, is "still evaluating" the Legislature's proposals, FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said.
But he added: New teachers "need to know there is some consistency in their base pay — not just volatile bonuses."
"Good research suggests some incentives can work, but several of the criteria being used to award the bonuses are untethered from research," Pudlow said.
Some senators wanted to kill the program last year, but "Best & Brightest" was extended a year in a compromise with the House at the end of the session.
This spring, though, more universal agreement is on the horizon. The two chambers' proposed bills are generally similar in expanding access to the bonuses, while differing subtly on how educators would qualify and teachers or principals might get priority above others.
"It's encouraging at how close the bills are, that this is something that can really be worked out and really be a bicameral product, which sometimes is rare," Diaz said.
Senators haven't yet voted on their plan (SB 1552), but the House's version got bipartisan praise in a 17-1 vote on Friday, when it was first discussed in the House Education Committee.
There are about 188,300 certified teachers statewide, with about 30,000 in Tampa Bay.
Republicans say it's implausible to offer all Florida educators a raise. They argue if the Legislature gave more money to districts specifically to increase teachers' salaries, the dollars would get bogged down in bargaining with local unions.
Lawmakers concede that increasing the amount of educators who could qualify for "Best & Brightest" would undoubtedly force the Legislature to designate significantly more dollars, or else the bonus per person would plummet.
The annual pot of money that's appropriated by the Legislature the past two years has been divided equally among all teachers who qualify.
In 2015-2016, about 5,300 teachers qualified and received $8,248 each. This school year, nearly 7,200 teachers qualified and received $6,816 each.
That payout formula could change next year. The plans being considered call for giving a greater proportion of dollars to teachers at low-performing schools and schools that serve primarily low-income families, to encourage good teachers to work where they're most needed.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark