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Florida lawmakers reject new teacher bonuses, despite DeSantis request

Lawmakers said they want to focus on raising teacher salaries in response to feedback they’ve heard from educators.

TALLAHASSEE — While the early negotiations of the 2020 legislative session have only just begun, one major education development already seems settled: No lawmakers are interested in creating a new teacher bonus program proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

When asked Wednesday whether the Legislature had ruled out a new bonus program, the lawmaker in charge of crafting the Senate’s education budget, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said: “We have.”

Budget chairman Sen. Ron Bradley, R-Fleming Island, also said Wednesday that he thinks lawmakers should focus on salaries.

After years of watching the evolution of the state’s current teacher bonus program, which is called Best and Brightest, Bradley said, "the fair way to attract and retain good teachers would be to move these dollars to base pay rather than through a bonus program.”

He presented his bill to the Senate Education Appropriations committee Wednesday to repeal Best and Brightest. It passed unanimously.

Until recently, questions remained over whether the House would embrace such a strategy, after that chamber vocally defended teacher bonuses for years. Teachers have long complained that the bonus criteria were unfair, such as how they used to require certain SAT or ACT scores from when the teachers were students. They have also said that because the awards were not reliable year-to-year, it didn’t help with their financial security or their ability to take out loans, for example.

But House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, recently told reporters he was open to repealing the Best and Brightest program. And an early version of the House’s proposed budget, which was released Wednesday, also did not include any funding for new bonuses.

DeSantis had been the first state leader to suggest scrapping Best and Brightest, calling it overly “confusing.” In November, he rolled out his suggested alternative: a $300 million new program that would award bonuses based in part on how teachers’ school perform in the A-F grading system. At the time, he said it was a “priority” for the 2020 legislative session, which began Jan. 14 and is scheduled to end March 13.

His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As for the salary raises, there is still much negotiating to be done between the House and Senate, which likely won’t be finished until near the end of session.

Stargel said that she’s “hesitated” to mandate a minimum teacher salary from Tallahassee — DeSantis proposed $47,500 — because she felt teacher pay was an issue that should be handled by each local school board, using flexible dollars handed out to each district by the state. But a survey of districts last year found that only 26 districts had increased teacher salaries in 2019.

“I’ve been one of the large oppositions to (a state-mandated salary) saying, ‘That’s up to you, local districts.' They’re the ones who set salaries, they’re the ones who have collective bargaining,” Stargel said. “But ... it wasn’t getting back to the districts: we value teachers we do want them to have increases.”

During the committee, Stargel amended one of her bills, Senate Bill 62, to include the framework for the teacher raises, which passed unanimously.