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  1. Education

New bonuses come to nearly $8,500 per teacher, but only the 'best and brightest'

As lawmakers prepare for a new session in January, they are looking to extend the program to reward highly rated teachers who scored well on their SAT or ACT exams beyond the one-year tryout they approved in the spring.
Published Dec. 3, 2015

In the final days of their June special session, Florida lawmakers set aside an extra $44 million for highly rated teachers who scored well on their SAT or ACT exams.

They aimed to provide 4,400 "Best and Brightest" bonuses of $10,000 each.

Five months later, the actual numbers are in: About 5,200 of the state's nearly 172,000 teachers qualified for the money, according to an initial review of reports submitted to the Florida Department of Education by Wednesday's midnight deadline. But they stand to get a slightly smaller pay hike of about $8,460 because the pool of money stays the same no matter how many teachers qualify.

Now, as lawmakers prepare for a new session in January, they are looking to extend the program beyond the one-year tryout they approved in the spring.

The state House Education Committee will take up a bill today that would make permanent the program that rewards educators who get a "highly effective" performance evaluation rating and scored in the top 20 percent when taking their college entrance exam. Gov. Rick Scott also is backing the controversial concept, proposing another $44 million for the awards in 2016-17.

Scott's budget plan states the money would "ensure the program is utilized to recruit and maintain the best and brightest teachers in Florida's classrooms."

Many teachers don't see the model that way. They've raised myriad concerns, perhaps most prominently that it treats veteran teachers unfairly compared to those new to the profession.

Consider Susan Cullum.

A 13-year veteran educator, the Wesley Chapel High science teacher regularly has received the highest evaluation marks, and she had the SAT scores to qualify for the bonus.

But at the end of 2013-14, Cullum took a medical leave of absence to deal with a recurrence of breast cancer. She missed out on her final evaluation for the year.

At the time, the missing rating carried little real effect. But nearly two years later, Department of Education officials informed the Pasco County School District that it meant Cullum could not receive a "Best and Brightest" bonus.

"No HE evaluation = not eligible," Crystal Spikes, a state education official, wrote in an email to the district human resources department, using an abbreviation for "highly effective."

Meanwhile, the law allows brand-new teachers with no experience to get the money, so long as they meet the SAT or ACT requirement.

"It's very frustrating," Cullum said. "I understand we need to attract teachers. But we also need to hold on to our core of our current teachers who are effective. … They need to re-evaluate the standards that they use to evaluate teachers."

Cullum was not alone in getting notification that the bonus wasn't coming. The state rules, released and clarified over the summer, excluded many others who might have otherwise qualified.

In Pasco County, for instance, five of 295 applicants were deemed ineligible because they didn't have an SAT or ACT score. Three had an unaccepted job title, such as resource teacher rather than classroom teacher. Eight missed the Oct. 1 application deadline.

Three, including Cullum, didn't have a complete 2013-14 evaluation.

Overall, one in five Pasco bonus seekers were denied, according to district records.

Lawmakers who support the program have said they want to boost interest in teaching as a job, and "Best and Brightest" is one performance-based incentive among many possibilities. Not everyone will benefit, they said, but many will.

In the House, lawmakers aim to make the program permanent. Once a teacher is deemed eligible, he or she would continue to receive the amount while they remain employed by the same district and continue to earn a "highly effective" evaluation rating.

The Senate, where support for the concept has proven more spotty, has its own version of the bill.

It would offer a bonus to highly effective teachers whose SAT or ACT scores put them in the top 40 percent of test takers, unlike the House's top 20 percent. A teacher with no experience still would have to score in the top 20 percent.

Bill sponsor Sen. John Legg, the Senate Education Committee chairman, said he filed the legislation to ensure his chamber has adequate input into the program moving forward. Last year, the Senate had almost no conversation on the concept, yet it was added to the budget by appropriations chairmen late in the special session.

He expected a dubious reaction to the measure from his panel.

"Our committee members have expressed concerns with it at a policy level," Legg said. "I think it's well-intended, but I think it's poorly designed and poorly executed. … We want to take a look at the issue."

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

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