1. The Education Gradebook

Romano: Eliminating political interference would be a real teacher bonus

Published Mar. 13, 2017

Two years later, we're still talking about teacher bonuses. As if this is the magical elixir that will suddenly lead to better schools, well-rounded students and happier lives.

If you had not yet heard, the folks in Tallahassee are rolling out improvements to their "Best & Brightest" bonus plan for teachers. And by improvements, I mean upgrading the plan from truly idiotic to largely ineffective.

The Legislature seems convinced that all it will take to fix public education is a checkbook and a gimmick. It's an interesting strategy for folks who usually complain about throwing money at problems.

What they fail to see is that there is a much simpler way to solve a growing teacher shortage crisis:

Stay the heck out of the classroom.

It's not a lack of pay that is driving teachers into early retirement and persuading college graduates to major in anything other than education. After all, nobody has ever gone into teaching because they figured it was the quickest way to buy a yacht. Heck, a recent PolitiFact analysis shows Florida has been underpaying its teachers, relative to the rest of the nation, for nearly 50 years.

So, no, a handful of bonuses will not solve a thing.

The bigger issue is that politicians, such as House Speaker Richard Corcoran, have killed morale with their words and destroyed motivation with their micromanagement of schools.

If they really want to attract good teachers, which goes hand-in-hand with helping students, legislators would stop trying to run school schedules, curricula, lesson plans and evaluations from Tallahassee.

"Of course, everybody wants more money, but that's not the issue I hear about most from teachers," said Carl Zimmerman, a former state representative and longtime Countryside High teacher. "Give teachers more autonomy. Allow them to teach instead of plastering their walls with meaningless papers about learning goals and rubrics and cookie-cutter lessons."

An elected official recently told me the Legislature has only three mandates every session:

1. Pass a budget.

2. Pass as many gun laws as possible.

3. Completely remake education every year.

It would be funny if it wasn't sadly accurate. They love to talk about smaller government, and then they try legislating a child's education from kindergarten to college and every recess in between.

And they think that giving 3 percent of the state's teachers a $7,000 bonus from the "Best & Brightest" program will somehow solve 180 days of nonsense for everyone else during the school year.

"Money matters, but it's like No. 3 or 4 on a list that begins with working conditions," said Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "Teachers do their jobs because it's a calling; they get joy out of reaching out to kids. And Tallahassee has done everything in its power to eliminate the joy of teaching — and the joy of learning."

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There's nothing wrong with offering financial incentives to reward a job well done. Bonuses can even be used to entice quality teachers to work at low-performing schools, which is one of the reforms now being discussed.

The Legislature is also considering using national certification test scores as possible bonus incentives, which has some merit. And yet, lawmakers are stubbornly refusing to give up on the idea of tying bonuses to scores on college entrance exams for veteran teachers.

Unfortunately, lawmakers see this issue as a battle with teachers associations, and they enjoy cutting union leaders out of any compensation discussions. So bully for them. They control this game.

It would just be nice if they recognized that alienating teachers is a surefire way of harming students, too.