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Bonus program has some Florida teachers telling the state: Keep your money

Florida's new Best and Brightest program -- which gives teachers bonuses based on the percentile rankings they achieved in long-ago SAT and ACT scores -- continues to take flak from educators. Many say it's an insult and an ill-conceived gimmick by lawmakers who don't want to raise teachers' regular pay. [iStockphoto.com]
Published Aug. 17, 2015

Pam Ingram graduated from Robinson High School in Tampa 23 years ago.

She remembers her grade-point average (3.75). She recalls her class rank (26).

The English teacher at Wesley Chapel High doesn't recollect her SAT score, though. And she's not about to look it up to apply for Florida's controversial new teaching bonus, although she's fairly certain to qualify.

"It's stupid," said Ingram, who is rated "highly effective" by her principal. "I don't see what SAT scores have to do with anything other than how you do your first year in college, and even that isn't a determining factor."

The Florida Legislature set aside $44 million this year to reward highly rated teachers who also had top SAT or ACT scores. Brand new teachers can qualify with their scores alone.

The Best and Brightest Scholarship has come under heavy criticism, including from some of the lawmakers who approved it this summer as a late addition to the state budget.

Many teachers have swallowed their disdain to put in for the bonus of up to $10,000. Their efforts have turned up a variety of logistical problems that districts, the state and testing companies are still working through.

But a growing group is choosing not to dignify the program by bothering with the details.

"I feel like I would just be buying into it, that it's okay for them to do this," said Ingram, who admits she could use a cash infusion to help cover her daughter's high school band experiment.

Orange County music teacher Kevin Strang called the award a "slap in the face" to experienced teachers.

"If the state of Florida truly cared about education, it would be rewarding all effective teachers for remaining in the profession, improving working conditions, and offering incentives to those entering the profession with the proper education and credentials," he said.

Amy Stagner, a math teacher at Pasco's Ridgewood High School, called it an "offensive policy" and suggested teachers should boycott the program.

"Until the teachers of Florida are able to stand united against absurd policies, politicians will never hear our arguments," Stagner said. "Teachers who are scrambling to retake the ACT or SAT before the Oct. 1 deadline cheapen our entire profession by agreeing to participate in this nonsense."

The Florida Education Association isn't taking such a harsh stance.

"Teachers are torn," president Andy Ford said. "They're seeing it could be $10,000, depending on how many people apply. That's a lot of money to a teacher. But they also know the test they took when they were 16, 17 years old doesn't have any relationship to how they can teach."

Without offering judgment, the state's largest teachers union offers assistance to those who decide to apply. There are several snags along the way.

For one, many teachers did not take the SAT or ACT. The Department of Education announced they could take the tests now to be eligible, but they'd have to submit official scores by Oct. 1.

The SAT isn't offered between the time the law took effect and the deadline, though, while the ACT has one September date that doesn't leave enough time to receive an official score.

Even after teachers unearth their results, many face another potential roadblock.

The law says their score must fall at or above the 80th percentile of all test takers at the time they took it. The SAT didn't set percentile rankings until 2004. The ACT also does not have the rankings going back decades.

In response to the Florida law, both test makers have offered to set and provide percentile rankings looking backward, the SAT to 1972 and the ACT to 1966.

That's still not good enough for Okaloosa County third-grade teacher Terri Murphy, who took the SAT in 1970.

"Because I am seasoned — in other words old — I feel I am being discriminated against," said Murphy, who has been fruitlessly calling lawmakers, the Attorney General's Office and others seeking redress.

Superintendents across Florida have raised still other concerns. How do they treat eligible teachers on leave? What if a teacher qualifies and is dismissed before the award arrives?

Like teachers, they're seeking answers from the Department of Education while also scratching their heads at the measure.

"It amazes me that some in the Florida Legislature think that a (several) decades-old SAT/ACT test taken by a (then) high school Jr. or Sr. has any kind of a significant impact on their instructional effectiveness as a current classroom teacher in 2015," Sumter superintendent Richard Shirley wrote to colleagues in a recent e-mail.

"However, if that really works, I want to start using my high school weight, 1972 body fat index and, while we are at (it), let's use my blood pressure from that era as well......:-)"

Political observers have started speculating whether lawmakers had something in mind other than sponsor Rep. Erik Fresen's stated goal of attracting top high school students into teaching.

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters has suggested on its education blog that the program was devised to aid Teach For America, a program that brings recent college graduates with limited training to teach in urban schools.

The group hinted that Florida Board of Education member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey, a former TFA executive in Miami, pushed the idea to Fresen, a Miami Republican with ties to charter school firm Academica.

Fishman Lipsey dismissed the connection.

"It was not my idea," she said.

In fact, Fresen has said he got the idea while traveling and reading a chapter in Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World.

Ford, the Florida Education Association president, suggested lighter reading in the future.

"It's just an absolutely ridiculous program," he said. "I think Rep. Fresen would be better served to read magazines when he's on a plane."

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

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