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Published Sep. 21, 2009

Florida recently announced it will shower more than $122 million on schools that earned an A or improved a letter grade under the state's ranking system. It might as well hand-deliver checks to teachers - some of whom just happen to be in the right place at the right time. The School Recognition Program is not a particularly wise way to spend scarce tax dollars, and the money could be redirected to better uses.

Each qualifying school receives $75 per student. At middle or high schools, the total can easily exceed $100,000. A school decides how to spend the money through a joint agreement between its School Advisory Council and faculty. Schools can buy equipment and materials, hire temporary staff or give bonuses. In times as tight as these, you might guess that schools would welcome the chance to buy items for the classroom that austere budgets can't provide. But it usually does not work out that way.

State law does not spell out the actual decisionmaking process. Since SACs are volunteer groups that are often loosely organized at best, they are not well equipped to best assess how to use the money. The practical result is that there is often great pressure within a school to "reward" the staff by giving them the money. Last year, Pinellas schools spent 89 percent of their money on bonuses; in Hillsborough, the figure was 96 percent.

State law even requires that if the SAC and faculty cannot agree by Nov. 1, the money is automatically divided among classroom teachers currently on staff - regardless of whether teachers were at the school when the grade was earned and with no provision for teachers who have left.

Often, a school's good grade is little more than a reflection of the socioeconomic make-up of its student body. In those cases, a school gets money for having an enrollment of advantaged students. If that money is converted to teacher bonuses, then those teachers are given more money for working with students who are already primed to succeed.

Effectively, this is a pay-for-performance system that isn't meaningfully tied to an individual teacher's performance at all. This is not like state programs that reward teachers for students in their class who do well on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. At least in those cases, the teacher taught a class on which a specific test was based, and there is clearer link between classroom achievement and award.

The amounts of money in the School Recognition Program add up to big sums: $8.2 million in Hillsborough, $3.8 million in Pinellas, $3.1 million in Pasco and $873,000 in Hernando this year. It is money that could be better spent to improve achievement in Florida's classrooms.