The Florida Board of Education unanimously approved a plan Tuesday that will give some teachers bonuses based solely on their students' performance on standardized tests.
As early as next year, the plan will award the top 10 percent of teachers in each school district a 5 percent bonus based on learning gains shown on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
If districts want to reward more teachers, they can. But there may not be state funding for it, officials warn.
The plan also will require the state to create exams or other assessments in every subject not covered by the FCAT. That way, 10 percent of the teachers in each district who teach subjects not tested on the FCAT, such as history or art, can receive a bonus.
The plan "clearly changes and advances the landscape of accountability," board chairman Phil Handy said at the start of Tuesday's discussion.
"We hold schools accountable. We hold children accountable," he said. "I think the rule we'll be discussing today extends that into teacher compensation as well."
Education officials say the bonus - about $2,000 for a teacher earning the state average - will be instrumental in recruiting and retaining new teachers. Rather than basing teacher salaries on education level and years on the job, the "pay for performance" plan will attract the best and brightest teachers available, they say.
But the plan is being attacked by teachers and their unions. Officials have tweaked it in recent days in an effort to make it more palatable, but it continues to draw fire from the state teachers union, which has filed a legal challenge.
"I know the commission is trying to say it has addressed some of the concerns people have," said union spokesman Mark Pudlow, "but it's the same problem with a different set of details on it, as far as we're concerned."
Among the changes is an increase in the number of teachers in FCAT-tested subjects eligible for the bonus.
In the first year of the program, the state will identify the 10 percent of teachers statewide whose students had the largest learning gains on the FCAT. The state also says it will provide each district with a method for identifying its top 10 percent.
After the first year, the state says, it will identify the top 25 percent of teachers statewide. Any teachers who make the top 10 percent the first year will keep getting bonuses if they stay in the top 25 percent in subsequent years.
Education Commissioner John Winn conceded the plan has plenty of critics.
"It is an understatement to say it is controversial," he told board members Tuesday. "But it is not an effort to align teacher pay to one test."
Winn said the goal is to work with school districts as they develop merit pay plans of their own.
David Mosrie, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is worried about the June 15 deadline districts must meet for submitting proposals for rewarding non-FCAT teachers.
"We feel doing this rapidly is going to create more concerns and errors than it's going to resolve," Mosrie said.
But education officials say districts have had plenty of time to work on performance pay plans. They were told to do so four years ago, after the Legislature created a system to award teacher bonuses based on FCAT scores and other criteria.
Some districts' plans were so complicated that few or no teachers applied. The state, dissatisfied with what it perceived as resistance, began crafting a new rule last summer.
"E-Comp" is the state's way of punishing districts that did not comply as expected, said Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Union.
"I have a feeling this rule was written with the intention of saying, "Okay, school boards, you didn't do what you were supposed to do. Now we're going to do it for you,' " Lyons said.
The union was philosophically opposed to a plan it thought should be bargained collectively but negotiated in good faith, Lyons said. That's what makes the new law particularly difficult to swallow, she said.
Not everyone finds fault with the new plan.
Ira Paul, a math teacher at Hialeah Lakes Senior High School and vice president of Independent Voices for Better Education, said he thinks the change will be good for teachers.
"I've heard before how this is terrible, how teachers will lose their jobs," said Paul, speaking at the board meeting Tuesday. "I think teachers will support it once they fully understand it."
Miami-Dade language arts teacher Chrissy Cuenca told board members she also supports the plan.
"Just as we reward the students who take the extra effort," Cuenca said, "we as teachers need to know we'll be rewarded for that extra effort."
But those teachers appear outnumbered by colleagues who oppose the plan.
Asia Pewitt, a first-year teacher who is earning his teaching credentials in an alternative certification program, said he wouldn't support the pay plan even if it puts extra money in his pocket.
"This isn't like a sales job where whoever makes the most sales gets the biggest bonus," said Pewitt, who teaches language arts to 140 seventh-graders at Madeira Beach Middle School. "I think teaching should be more of a cooperative effort that benefits everybody."