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

Florida lawmakers have set aside $285 million this year for the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program. But they also approved new rules that have many teachers worried they won’t see any of that money. According to estimates by the Florida Education Association, teachers at hundreds of schools won’t meet the new criteria. []
Florida lawmakers have set aside $285 million this year for the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program. But they also approved new rules that have many teachers worried they won’t see any of that money. According to estimates by the Florida Education Association, teachers at hundreds of schools won’t meet the new criteria. []
Published May 3, 2019

From the moment Florida launched its Best and Brightest teacher bonus in 2015, critics have blasted its reliance on educators' college entrance scores to help determine who got the money.

That's why lawmakers approved new rules that remove those scores as a factor. But disdain for the bonus plan remains, perhaps stronger than before.

Many say the new criteria are worse.

Even Hillsborough County teacher Pamela Korzep, one of a handful of educators to initially praise the system as a fair way to recognize excellence, took a dim view of the proposed change.

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

A single mom who regularly earns "highly effective" evaluations, Korzep viewed Best and Brightest as a chance to boost her pay. To qualify, she left her post as a peer evaluator on the administrative track to return to the classroom as a reading teacher. Now she helps ninth-graders who have failed the Florida Standards Assessment.

"That was a huge incentive for me to come back," Korzep said of the original bonus plan.

In the final days of the session, the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature that devised the program voted to end a provision that based the bonus on teachers' ACT and SAT scores. Even Gov. Ron DeSantis, in one of his first post-election speeches, said the requirement "didn't make sense."

Many teachers expressed satisfaction that the rule, which some sued over as discriminatory, was deleted.

"It is idiotic to think that my SAT scores from 1974 in any way indicate my success or lack of success as an educator," said Orange County teacher Judy Lindquist.

But she and others have no love for the replacement.

Under the new plan, teachers would be able to earn a "retention" bonus designed to keep them in their school, but it would be based on the total points their school achieves in the state grading system. To get the bonus, the school would need to improve an average of at least 3 percentage points in total points over the prior three years.

Teachers also would need to work at that school for at least two years, including the one in which the bonus is offered. The bonus would be $1,000 for those with an "effective" rating and $2,500 for "highly effective" teachers.

To Korzep, those rules equate to taking money out of her pocket.

Spoto High, where she works, does not make such gains. Worse, she noted, in the recent past the school has seen its principal removed, its faculty turn over rapidly and substitutes in classrooms for months at a time — all creating instability that affects student performance.

Yet every year under the original system, Korzep got results — and a $7,200 bonus. Making the award dependent on so many external factors, unlike a personal test score she could at least control, is "completely ridiculous," she said.

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"I cannot carry a whole school," Korzep said. "I'm going to go where the odds of getting the bonus are higher."

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The Florida Education Association has crunched some numbers, and by its tally, hundreds of schools would not meet the new mark.

Korzep is far from alone in her criticism. And the arguments go beyond the school grading points.

Several educators noted that to earn a "recognition" award they must be selected by their principal. The award is available to teachers rated "effective" or higher only after "recruitment" and "retention" bonuses are paid.

"Leaving an award up to the discretion of a principal. That's funny," Manatee County math teacher Rennie Finck said. "Guess we'll see some serious dog and pony stuff."

She was referring to the special lessons that teachers inevitably would give when principals drop in for classroom observations.

Some also expect that the "recruitment" award — a one-time hiring bonus up to $4,000 — would deplete the funds available to veteran educators who happen to meet the other standards. It would be paid to newly hired teachers deemed "content experts" in mathematics, science, computer science, reading or civics.

The definition of "content expert" would be left to the Florida Department of Education.

Many teachers, the Florida Education Association and several Democrat lawmakers clamored for the nearly $285 million set aside for Best and Brightest to go directly into teacher salaries instead.

That way, they suggested, teachers can have a more stable income that would help them qualify for loans, pay bills and meet other financial needs. The National Education Association recently announced that Florida's average teacher salary is about $12,000 below the national average, and rated 46th among states — one spot lower than the year before.

But the lawmakers who promoted the bonus system said they wanted to reward teachers who do well. Besides, they said, school districts — not the Legislature — negotiate salaries.

To that end, they said, they increased by $75 per student the unrestricted money schools use to pay for their general operations. That comes out to an added $364 million going to districts, said Rep. Chris Latvala, the Pinellas County Republican who chairs the House PreK-12 budgeting committee.

"This gives districts the discretion to use those funds as they see fit, including for teacher salary increases," Latvala said.

Pasco County teacher Jennifer Gurley contended that, far from offering more money to teachers, the new approach looks like a pay cut to many who have received the bonus, however reluctantly.

"To be honest, although the way Best and Brightest was before was completely unfair, it did keep me in the classroom versus leaving for a district or resource position. I liked the chunk of money," Gurley, who teaches at Sand Pine Elementary, said in a Facebook conversation.

As a veteran teacher, she is "grandfathered" into the older pay plan that bases salary increases on longevity. So she doesn't get the added performance pay that might come her way under the system covering newer teachers.

"But I was okay with that since I got this bonus," she said, referring to Best and Brightest.

Now it appears she could take a financial hit.

"I'm at an A school that's been dwindling closer to a B every year. Do I have control over that?" Gurley asked. "It really makes you think about how we are being compensated for working our butts off to make a difference."

The Best and Brightest changes went to DeSantis as part of a larger bill that also created a new voucher program. He is expected to sign it.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at or . Follow @jeffsolochek.