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Repeal of Best and Brightest teacher bonus passes first hurdle

The idea is part of Florida leaders’ pitch to address low teacher pay, though there is still disagreement over how to do so.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
Published Dec. 9, 2019
Updated Dec. 9, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that proposes to eliminate Florida’s “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus passed its first committee Monday, a sign that the state Senate is getting on board with eliminating the controversial program.

“Best and Brightest was created with the absolute best of intentions. It was intended to reward and acknowledge highly effective educators,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “It’s fallen short of those goals and we can use those dollars in better ways.”

Senate Bill 486 passed unanimously, after comments from lawmakers that supported abandoning a program the Legislature has long defended in the face of criticism from teachers.

“Best and Brightest was an attempt, on our part, to guarantee funds to teachers we found to be effective," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. “My goal will be to continue to look at ways to make sure dollars get to teachers that are doing great jobs in our classrooms.”

Bradley’s bill is in line with an array of teacher pay proposals made by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in the past called the bonus program overly “complicated.” The criteria for the bonuses have gone through several iterations, including one that included teachers’ SAT or ACT scores from when they were students.

Last year, lawmakers remodeled it, creating tiers of bonuses for teachers who specialize in certain subjects or who had high marks on their evaluations, but their entire schools also had to make certain performance gains that teachers complained were out of their control.

DeSantis recently proposed a new bonus program, which has fewer tiers but would still rely on schools’ growth in the state’s A-F grading system to determine which teachers and principals will be eligible. It would also double bonuses for educators in Title I schools that serve low-income students. He has also proposed that the state set a minimum teacher salary of $47,500.

But lawmakers are the only ones who can make the governor’s ideas a reality. So far, details of these proposals and their nearly $1 billion price tag have prompted a range of responses.

Recently, Rep. Chris Latvala of Clearwater, who chair the House’s committee on K-12 finances, said he would be reluctant to discard Best and Brightest completely. And the House, generally, has balked at the price tag of the DeSantis’ proposals.

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs Senate Education, said lawmakers have a long way to go.

“This is all going to depend on how much money we get,” he said.