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Florida sets aside $15 million to settle Best and Brightest bonus lawsuit

Thousands of black and Hispanic teachers could benefit from the agreement.

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When Gov. Ron DeSantis talked after the 2019 legislative session about putting $300 million into teacher bonuses for next year, it seemed like a bit of extreme rounding.

The education budget that Florida lawmakers approved showed only $284.5 million for the Best and Brightest program, after all.

But tucked into another part of the budget — line 142A, to be precise — the Legislature had placed $15.5 million for settling a federal lawsuit referred to as “Educ. Ass’n v. Dep’t of Educ., Case No. 4-17-cv-414-RH/CAS.”

That case, it turns out, is a nearly two-year-old challenge to the bonus that now appears to be over. And thousands of Florida’s black and Hispanic teachers stand to benefit.

To reach the deal, the money had to be included in the budget. The test-score requirements also had to be removed from the bonus eligibility.

Lawmakers did both.

They, along with DeSantis, agreed that granting bonuses based on a teacher’s SAT or ACT college entrance exam scores “didn’t make sense” and deleted that criterion.

It was the main complaint that the Florida Education Association and select teachers made in taking the state and school districts to court in 2017.

The FEA’s lawyers alleged that the Legislature discriminated against black, Hispanic and older teachers by requiring the scores. Many teachers in Florida never took the exams, they noted, particularly if they began their degree programs in community college.

Many “highly effective” teachers were denied added pay simply because of a missing test result, the lawyers claimed.

As the class-action case progressed, the age discrimination portion fell to the side as the state claimed immunity under the 11th Amendment on that group of teachers. But the racial bias complaint continued.

The sides entered mediation to try to resolve their differences. And that’s where the agreement began to form.

Under the terms, those black and Hispanic teachers who did not receive a bonus because they lacked test scores would be eligible to get one for any of the four years in which they otherwise would have qualified.

The award amounts were $8,248 in the first year, $6,816 in the second, and $6,000 in the third and fourth years.

Whether or not they applied for a bonus should not matter, federal Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida wrote in a December 2018 order.

“The defendants say a teacher cannot assert a claim if the teacher did not apply for a bonus, but that is not correct,” Hinkle wrote. “A teacher who did not apply because the teacher could not meet the SAT or ACT condition may assert a claim.”

He noted that some teachers might not have applied because they expected to be discriminatorily denied.

The number of teachers who might get a payment through the settlement, therefore, remains uncertain. The FEA stated that 59,528 teachers received “highly effective” evaluations in 2015 and, among them, 8 percent were black and 13 percent were Hispanic.

In 2015, 5,334 teachers received bonuses, among whom 1 percent were black and 5 percent were Hispanic. Extrapolating out, the FEA estimated about 12,000 teachers could be eligible for the awards for that year.

The state Department of Education is to be compiling a complete list for the four years.

No one from the department responded to a request for information about the deal.

Rep. Chris Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who leads the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee, said legislative leaders agreed to putting the money into the budget for when a settlement can be reached.

He said he did not know the details, which had not been spelled out to lawmakers, but wanted to support ending the lawsuit and getting money into teachers’ pockets.

Before the agreement can go to Judge Hinkle for his consideration, it still has one more step. DeSantis, who already has signed the bill ending the test requirement, must sign the 2019-20 budget without vetoing the $15.5 million.

FEA president Fed Ingram said he did not foresee any obstacles to completing the settlement.

“I’m happy to be moving forward,” Ingram said, criticizing the state’s reliance of bonus programs rather than pay increases for teachers.

He said the union would be shifting its attention to combating some of the provisions in new laws DeSantis already has signed. It is actively discouraging members from volunteering to serve as armed school guards, he said.

The union also is asking the Department of Education to work with teachers whose temporary certifications are set to expire June 30, so they might benefit from extensions created in law that take effect July 1.

“They’ve given us a lot to work with, unfortunately,” Ingram said.

Related: Changes to Best and Brightest bonus will leave good teachers behind, critics say