Despite objections, lawmakers look to expand Best and Brightest teacher bonus program

Published March 21, 2016

Hopes for the demise of Florida's hotly debated Best and Brightest teacher bonuses faded last week as the $49 million budget item survived Gov. Rick Scott's veto list.

As a result, the program that rewards teachers for top performance evaluations and college entry exam scores will remain unchanged for another year, despite heavy criticism from some teachers and lawmakers.

What's more, legislative leaders have set their sights on expanding the program in 2017 and making it law, rather than a year-to-year line in the budget.

"I think you'll see more money added," said incoming House speaker Richard Corcoran, a strong proponent of the bonuses. "There's a lot of improvements we've been working on."

Among those, Corcoran expects to funnel more bonus money to teachers in Title I schools, which serve high percentages of low-income students. Attracting strong teachers to those needy schools has been a stated goal of Best and Brightest from the start. But a Tampa Bay Times analysis found that only 25 percent of the bonuses went to teachers in Title I schools in the first year of the program.

The House moved to address that issue in its bill this spring, but the provision came out as the Senate refused to agree with placing the program into law.

In addition, Corcoran suggested that lawmakers might expand Best and Brightest eligibility by also factoring in the scores teachers get based on how students perform on state tests. These so-called value-added model, or VAM, scores would be considered in conjunction with teachers' evaluations.

"Clearly, those people deserve to be rewarded, too," he said.

Some detractors don't want to see the measure get that far.

They have blasted the state Senate leadership for allowing the policy to get into the budget for a second straight year without an up-or-down vote on the upper chamber floor.

Even outgoing Sen. John Legg, who chaired the Education Committee, lamented the deals made before the session that essentially kept the issue from a full hearing and vote. He estimated the bonus, as a standalone bill, would have failed by as many as 10 votes.

Legg said the effort could be construed as "logrolling" — lawmakers using the budget process to push through ideas that otherwise would not win approval. Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee rejected that notion, observing that the item has a one-year shelf life in the budget and would have to be revisited to survive beyond that.

Still, organizations such as the Florida Education Association are exploring whether they will challenge the provision as violating past Supreme Court rulings that appropriations bills cannot change existing law.

"Any citizen can bring an action to challenge that," said Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who regularly represents the FEA and other related groups.

Legg contended that much of the dispute might have been handled through a thorough discussion about Best and Brightest during the session. That debate might have yielded changes that could have made the program more palatable, he said.

For instance, he said, lawmakers might have used SAT and ACT scores to identify potentially strong future teachers, and then offered them college loan incentives to enter the profession or bonuses once they prove themselves.

Under the program as it stands, he said, the Legislature is abandoning a yearslong effort to measure teacher success based on results rather than factors such as academic degrees or years of service.

"When you see a qualified teacher, and everything shows they are doing exceedingly well, and say we're not going to value you and make you eligible for a bonus because of an SAT score, I think that hurts education as a whole," Legg said.

FEA president Joanne McCall questioned whether the Best and Brightest program had any room for redemption, given the flaws she saw in the model. Those included the provision, as Legg pointed out, that SAT scores are not necessarily indicative of teaching success.

Moreover, she added, the program does not take into account the many teachers who never had to take a college entry exam, while giving money to first-year teachers who took an exam but have no classroom track record. It's also clear, she said, that the money — like school recognition funds — tends to go to schools with mostly affluent students.

"To accomplish what they want to accomplish and make teachers feel valued would require a conversation with teachers, which doesn't seem to occur," McCall said.

She wondered why lawmakers would not, at the very least, rely upon the evaluation results that they mandated as the basis for bonuses.

"It's their rule, not ours," McCall said. "I am not so sure why we are not using the evaluation system we have in place. … Pay every teacher in the state who has made a highly effective rating."

Highly effective ratings already are half of the equation for a Best and Brightest bonus, Corcoran said, adding that he questioned their objectivity given the wide range of definitions across Florida. Some districts gave almost all their teachers that mark, while others gave it to half or fewer.

But the recognition must go beyond that one measure to include others, just as professions such as accounting and law do, he argued.

"Everything in life has two measurements, the can do and the will do," he said, stating that teaching should be no different.

Not every teacher qualifies for every type of added pay that exists, added Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Don Gaetz, who kept Best and Brightest alive in the Senate budget negotiations. That doesn't mean, though, that all the extra salary opportunities should be eliminated, he said.

If a teacher wants to compete for a Best and Brightest bonus, Corcoran said, he or she still can sit for the SAT or ACT, regardless of past performance. The Legislature wants to get more pay to as many top teachers as possible, he said, noting that the debate took place in the open and under much scrutiny, despite critics' contentions otherwise.

"The bigger the checks, the more likely we're going to get folks to come from the other 49 states," Corcoran said. "I think we can get there in a bipartisan way."

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