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Florida Board of Education proposes ending 'Best and Brightest' teacher bonuses

Florida's State Board of Education has proposed cutting the controversial "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus program and replacing it with other initiatives to reward good teachers. But it remains to be seen whether the Legislature and governor agree.
Published Sep. 24, 2016

TAMPA — The Florida Board of Education, made up entirely of Gov. Rick Scott appointees, on Friday proposed ending a controversial bonus for teachers based partly on college entrance exam scores.

As part of their annual legislative budget request, board members recommended against renewing $49 million for the Best and Brightest program, which paid about $8,500 each to 5,200 teachers in its first year. Instead, they called for using $43 million for different teacher recruitment and retention initiatives.

The biggest of those would be a bonus program aimed at new teachers who "show great potential" and veteran teachers "who have demonstrated the highest student academic growth among their peers." It would target schools with high needs, while also aiming to address shortages in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I am in favor of what is being done," said board vice chairman John Padget, a Monroe County businessman who briefly served as school superintendent. "That money could be used much more efficiently."

Padget had called for the move at the board's August meeting, suggesting Florida needs to revisit the idea of rewarding teachers for their decades-old SAT or ACT scores, as the Best and Brightest program does.

For teachers to qualify, those results must be in the top 20 percent of scores, and they need a "highly effective" rating on their job evaluation.

Last month, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart told the board that she was researching better ideas for attracting top teachers into Florida's classrooms. On Friday, she said she would have more specifics to report in October.

"I'd like to hear the details," board member Gary Chartrand said. "I think (the money is) in the right bucket, though."

Florida Education Association president Joann McCall, a leading critic of the Best and Brightest program, said any step away from the "harebrained scheme" is in the right direction. But she withheld judgment on the board's action until she can know more about the next steps.

"If they want to create something, that's going to create the heartburn," McCall said.

Several programs exist to appropriately gauge teachers' expertise, she contended, citing the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as an example. Florida used to pay teachers' application fees to become National Board certified, and then gave them bonuses similar to those under Best and Brightest once they earned the recognition.

Lawmakers defunded the National Board program nearly a decade ago, arguing the certification did not have a strong correlation to student outcomes.

They could take money out of Best and Brightest even more easily because the concept never made its way into state law. Legislative leaders could not agree on terms for the program over two years, landing the House idea in the budget as an annual line item that needed renewal each year to continue.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a chief supporter of Best and Brightest, said he was encouraged by the state board's action. "What their (budget proposal) paragraph suggests is tweaking it, which we've always been open to," said Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

He liked the idea of taking the existing program and perhaps adding factors to demonstrate high performance of current teachers. And he remained bullish on the need to attract and retain top teachers from elsewhere.

"We're on the same page," Corcoran said.

Some of the program's most staunch opponents, however, are no longer in the Legislature.

Lawmakers didn't heed the state board's stance on the bonus last year. Board members called for an 89 percent decrease in funding, while lawmakers moved in the opposite direction, adding $5 million to the program.

Scott proposed leaving Best and Brightest intact at $44 million last year. He has not taken a position for 2017-18. A spokeswoman said he will issue his budget proposal before lawmakers reconvene.

Teachers still can apply for the bonus for the current year.

Some have called the program insulting and refused to participate. Others say they'll take the money to supplement their salaries. The deadline is Nov. 1.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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