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Will Florida teachers get a raise instead of a bonus? 'There is a chance.'

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Florida teachers want raises, not the bonuses that state lawmakers keep talking about.

Their goal might be within reach this year.

"I would say there is a chance," said Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee. "I couldn't put a percentage on it, but I can certainly tell you there is a chance it will be a permanent pay increase."

A teacher raise, if it came to pass, would be one of the biggest developments of this year's legislative session as the state deals with a teacher shortage, and as teachers around Florida and the nation push for higher pay.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Latvala discussed the issue in the context of the controversial Best and Brightest program, which grants teachers bonuses if they meet set performance criteria. Both the House and Senate have set aside millions of dollars for the program this year.

But teachers, school board members, superintendents and others have urged the chambers to direct the money into annual salaries — which many districts have struggled to improve without holding local votes for property tax hikes. They say the money would help stem a mounting shortage of qualified applicants for teaching jobs.

"Put it in the base salary. Improve people's retirements," said Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning, incoming president of the state superintendents association. "To me, it's pretty simple."

Florida Education Association president Fed Ingram said the issue is one of the top two priorities this session for his organization, the state teachers union. The other is improving the "base student allocation," an amount that districts can spend as they see fit.

"Anything we can do to raise teacher salaries is a plus," Ingram said, suggesting other proposals such as cutting certification exams would be lesser measures.

The message, conveyed by many school board members during their coordinated Tallahassee lobbying day last week, began to seep into House discussions during budget debate.

Teachers "have made clear that a raise in salary is more meaningful than a bonus," Rep. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat, said on the floor Thursday. "It provides stability with their own budgeting. It is a more even tax rate for them. … And it gives them a higher income for loan purposes."

Polsky called on her colleagues to convert the Best and Brightest funds into salaries.

House Speaker Jose Oliva did not go as far in his remarks to begin the spring session. But he did make clear his desire to have "a budget that increases teacher pay."

So far, the chambers have offered to change the terms of the Best and Brightest program, which started in 2015. At Gov. Ron DeSantis' request, for instance, they have removed college entrance test score requirements from the eligibility requirement.

But they differ in other key aspects of the proposals as they head into budget negotiations.

The House has allocated $269 million toward the program, with bonus amounts of $2,000 and $1,100, depending on evaluation level. The Senate has set aside $234 million, for bonuses of unspecified amounts.

The House has set minimum requirements of receiving either a "highly effective" or "effective" performance evaluation rating, something Latvala says covers nearly 93 percent of all teachers. The Senate has created a more complicated set of criteria, including the possibility of bonuses for new teachers, those who meet certain criteria or those with good enough evaluations.

Neither changes the definition of which teachers qualify for the bonuses — it would remain K-12 classroom teachers, a point of contention among a growing number of prekindergarten teachers, career specialists and others who say they deserve consideration, too.

These differences leave room for negotiation and compromise.

Key Senate leaders acknowledged that, if the House wants the conversation on tweaking teacher bonuses, the Senate will at least entertain the concept.

But the Senate has a different idea when it comes to providing raises, said Education Appropriations chairwoman Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

It aims to increase the base student allocation by just under $150 per student, Stargel noted, generating about $600 million in flexible funds that districts could decide to use for salaries. "We don't actually set salaries at the state level," Stargel observed.

The House, by comparison, recommended boosting the base student allocation by just over $38 — still more than the 47 cents per student of a year ago, but not approaching the Senate level.

Stargel recalled that when Gov. Rick Scott attempted in 2013 to direct a set amount to teacher pay, many districts did not comply in their contract talks. Raises were uneven at best, although the Legislature did include money to fund them again the following year.

The Senate's Best and Brightest plan comes above and beyond the unrestricted funds, Stargel said.

On a more practical level, Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, raised concerns that putting the bonus money into salaries would result in very little added money for teachers, after things like taxes and retirement contributions are removed.

"It gets watered down," Diaz said. "That's what makes it difficult."

Yes, he said, the idea of granting raises could be a good political sound bite that might make many teachers happy. The question remains, though, whether doing so would have the desired effect and be sound policy, he added.

Latvala, whose mother was a longtime teacher, recognized the goal of raises might be more desirable than achievable. He said he supported bonuses, as well as districts looking for other funds to pay for salary increases.

Still, he said, the idea of shifting funds might at least be worth another look.

"At the legislative level," Latvala said, "we should do everything we can to reward deserving teachers."

The House and Senate have yet to schedule their budget conference talks.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.