Ron DeSantis announces $422 million increase in teacher bonuses under new program

Thursday’s announcement included long-awaited details about what Gov. Ron DeSantis plans for teacher pay.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a stop at Armwood High School Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 in Tampa. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a stop at Armwood High School Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 in Tampa. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Feb. 7, 2019|Updated Feb. 8, 2019

TAMPA -- Gov. Ron DeSantis continued Thursday to push for improvements in Florida’s education system, outlining a plan to ease the teacher shortage and eliminate a controversial component of the state’s teacher bonus program.

Speaking at Armwood High -- his second Hillsborough school visit in two weeks -- the new Republican governor pitched a $422 million expansion of the Best & Brightest bonus program and an additional $10 million a year for teacher recruitment.

Best & Brightest awards would no longer be tied to the college entrance exams, such as the SAT and the ACT, that teachers took long before they began their careers.

“Quite frankly, that test is a moment in time,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also proposed a “bad actor list” to stop failed charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, from re-opening elsewhere in the state.

Much of this would need legislative approval, as would a budget that increases unrestricted funding by $50 per student, up from a 47-cent increase the previous year. While it is too soon to predict the course of this year’s session, House Speaker Jose Oliva responded to news of DeSantis’ budget last week with a statement that the state has a “responsibility to respect Florida’s taxpayers by spending each dollar wisely.”

Nevertheless, educators are seeing in DeSantis a leader who wants to resolve at least some of the problems that have long frustrated them.

At Tampa Bay Technical High School last week, DeSantis announced an executive order to evaluate career education programs and bring them in line with industry needs.

On Thursday, he said the expanded Best & Brightest program could provide individual bonuses of more than $9,000 to nearly 45,000 qualifying teachers. The current program provides several tiers that go as high as $6,000, according to the state.

“You put $9,000 on the table for a teacher? That’s very significant," said Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins, who is under pressure from his School Board to do something about the district’s triple-digit teaching vacancy numbers,

Eliminating the SAT requirement is expected to dramatically increase the percentage of award recipients who are African American, from 1 percent to 9.8 percent.

Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Tamara Shamburger said she was “super excited” by that prospect, along with the expectation that the recruitment plan would attract more teachers to high-poverty schools. The plan, as described by DeSantis, would provide loan and tuition forgiveness for 1,700 new teachers if they agree to teach in Florida for five years.

“So far I’m very, very pleased with what this governor is doing with education,” Shamburger said. “I think that he’s basically hitting a home run and I hope that our legislators will agree.”

Originally, state law required Best & Brightest recipients to hold classroom jobs and a have a “highly effective” rating on the state evaluation system. About 7,000 Florida teachers qualified.

But last year, in a temporary measure, the Legislature expanded the program’s reach by adding lesser awards for many teachers with “effective” ratings.

At last count, Best & Brightest awards went to 163,563 teachers and cost the state $215 million.

DeSantis proposed Thursday that the bonuses go to “highly effective” teachers who work on campuses where the scores tied to school grades improved by 1 percent over the previous year.

Hillsborough teachers union staffer Vincent Jones, who arrived near the end of Thursday’s event, said the “highly effective” distinction, which DeSantis included in his statement, is problematic. The ratings are based on student test scores, which are hard to improve in some of the system’s most challenging jobs.

“From the union perspective, that is going to harm some folks who are working and giving their best every single day,” Jones said, although he added that “I’m never against rewarding those people who go above and beyond the highly effective level, for sure.”

Jones said schools would be better off if the funding flowed directly to the districts.

“The bottom baseline issue, that we have all of this money for all of these random programs, we would rather have it so that we can raise up the profession of public education employees at every level so that they feel respected and appreciated for what they do,” he said. “One man’s opinion, this is the most important job on the face of the earth besides parent.”

Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, went a step farther.

“I’m happy that he recognizes that there is a teacher shortage,” Gandolfo said of DeSantis. “I’m happy that he recognizes that education can use more funding. However, this is what I feared, that they were going to continue this crazy bonus program because they’re just designed to bypass the union and collective bargaining process. It’s a bonus. It doesn’t raise anybody’s pay. Our goal is to get these folks when they retire to have a halfway decent pension that they can survive on.”

Union leaders also do not like Best & Brightest because it excludes many school-based professionals who work with children, but are not classroom teachers.

“This might work in a factory environment, but we’re dealing with kids," Gandolfo said. "Taking out that one asinine element (the SAT score) doesn’t make the rest of the thing work. You want to help education? Fund education.”

In Tallahassee, leaders of the Florida Education Association are taking a more measured approach as they wait to see the full effect of DeSantis’ approach to education, and how it is received by the Legislature.

“We’re very encouraged by what the governor has put out,” said Sharon Nesvig, the organization’s communications director. “He addressed all the issues we had with the Best & Brightest program -- the discrimination, the disenfranchising of minority teachers and teachers who came into the profession from other avenues where they did not have to take the SAT. We are pleased with that portion of it.”

Nesvig said she also likes the teacher recruitment plan and the “bad actors list” for charter providers.

As for Best & Brightest, she said, “there’s a lot of things that need to be worked out. And hopefully this is opening the door for more conversations.”

Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.