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Florida works to complete Best and Brightest teacher lawsuit settlement

Lawmakers set aside $15.5 million to end the legal challenge of the bonus program.
The Florida Department of Education, which is based in Tallahassee, and the state’s 67 county school boards wre sued by the Florida Education Association and seven South Florida teachers over the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, first enacted by lawmakers in 2015. A settlement is being completed. [Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jul. 15

Florida school districts have an Aug. 8 deadline to submit lists of their black and Hispanic teachers with “highly effective” evaluations who did not receive bonuses through the state’s Best and Brightest program from its 2015 inception through the 2019 award.

The information will be used to notify educators who would be eligible for payments through settlement of a class action lawsuit challenging the bonus as discriminatory. The case originally alleged both age and race discrimination, but the portion related to age was removed.

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

To come to the agreement, the state had to eliminate the portion of the system that the plaintiffs found most egregious. Specifically, they alleged that the reliance on SAT and ACT scores was unfair, because many teachers of a certain age and race did not use the college entry exams to get into their schools of education.

Lawmakers removed the testing criteria in the spring, as they amended the program. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had criticized the use of SAT, signed the bill into law.

DeSantis also approved the $15.5 million budget allocation to settle the lawsuit.

Those key actions in place, the sides now must complete the official agreement to be presented to all members of the class. John Davis, the Tallahassee lawyer representing the Florida Education Association in the case, said the agreement details could be completed by the end of this week.

Attorneys for the parties are “hammering it out.”

But that’s only the start of the process, Davis said. The sides would have to get the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal, which has two state appeals on the case before it, to relinquish its jurisdiction back to the Northern District of Florida, which originally heard the suit.

Several hearings would have to take place before the judge, including time for public input on the fairness of the agreement, would have to take place prior to any final action.

“If the judge finds [the settlement] fair and reasonable, that would be the end of the case,” Davis said.

He anticipated closure no earlier than the end of the year.

Meanwhile, criticism continues to mount among teachers who argue that the new bonus criteria are even less acceptable than the original ones. They note that teachers would have to be at a school that has a three year average increase in state accountability scores of at least 3 percentage points, and have calculated that fewer than two in five schools would qualify.

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

Even some A-rated schools might not make the cut, according to some analysis they have done. The Department of Education has not verified whether it will determine qualified schools in the same way.

In a string of emails, some superintendents have noted that while the new model would reduce bonuses to some teachers, it might put more money into a different Best and Brightest category that is based more on principal recognition.

That could make it easier for them to direct money to high performing teachers outside the K-12 classroom, they noted, something that was not permitted in the original bonus language.

Several educators such as prekindergarten teachers and reading coaches have complained that they had been unfairly kept from getting the money.

Related: Not a Florida classroom teacher? No Best and Brightest for you.

Other concerns relating to Best and Brightest are expected, as well.

The Morgan & Morgan law firm has announced plans to unveil a new lawsuit related to teacher pay in a Tuesday morning news conference in Orlando. The firm stated its complaint will be made on behalf of thousands of teachers.

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