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Florida’s Best and Brightest teacher bonus too confusing to survive, Gov. DeSantis says

DeSantis signals a new direction days before the 2019 bonus funds are to go to school districts.
Governor Ron DeSantis. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] ["OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 24
Updated Sep. 24

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he would like to do away with Florida’s “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program and instead replace it with his own plan to raise teacher pay and increase retention, which he has yet to announce.

The current bonus structure was dramatically redone by lawmakers in the 2019 session, eliminating one criterion teachers loathed that based eligibility on SAT and ACT test scores from when they were students themselves. Lawmakers enacted a three-tiered system requiring teachers to be rated “effective” or “highly effective” on their evaluations to work in a school that improved an average of at least three percentage points each year over the prior three school years.

DeSantis declared the new framework “very complicated.”

“How the Legislature did it last time, I still don’t understand how that’s going to work,” he said, speaking with reporters after a Cabinet meeting. “I don’t want it to be that complicated.”

RELATED: Changes to Best and Brightest bonus will leave good teachers behind, critics say

DeSantis said his plan should be formally announced within the next month and promised it will “more than just a little token” for teachers because he wants to make teaching a more attractive profession for young people coming out of college.

The governor’s comments came just days before the Department of Education is scheduled to distribute $285 million in Best and Brightest funds that lawmakers set aside for the program in the spring.

That amount was less than DeSantis had hoped to provide, and it came with the new set of requirements that many teachers see as even less fair than the original version.

Under current rules, teachers can earn one of three bonuses:

• A $4,000 recruitment award for newly hired teachers deemed content experts in specific subject areas;

• A retention bonus of $2,500 or $1,000, depending on evaluation rating, for teachers whose schools made certain academic gains over the prior three years; or

• A recognition dividend based on principal recommendations, the amount for which was not set in law. Teachers would benefit from this one only if there is money left over from the other two.

RELATED: Which teachers qualify for a Florida Best and Brightest recruitment bonus?

The Legislature’s plan meant that teachers at only about half of the state’s 3,300 public schools would be eligible to get the retention money. That includes 60 percent of A-rated schools, 57 percent of B schools, 45 percent of C schools and 18 percent of D schools.

Many educators complained that the new model, which DeSantis also criticized despite signing it into law, made it even less likely for them to receive a smaller bonus than they could get under the older iteration. They have continually called for higher salaries rather than bonuses, noting it’s difficult to get a bank loan based on non-recurring income.

“Teachers at about 1,600 schools are ineligible for this year’s retention bonus, and teachers at schools with an economically disadvantaged student population are disproportionately affected,” said Florida Education Association president Fed Ingram. "Florida has spent more than $1 billion on six ill-conceived bonus programs in the past 13 years, including the newest version of Best and Brightest. When will our Legislature fund public education at a level where our students have the resources they need and teachers receive the salaries they deserve?”

Lately, even some business leaders have joined in the call for better teacher salaries. The Council of 100 included the idea in its long-term education improvement strategic plan, observing that Florida’s lack of competitive pay makes it difficult to maintain strong schools for children.

Representatives from the state superintendents association and the Florida Department of Education began discussing ideas for boosting school employee wages last week.

RELATED: Florida superintendents, state education officials begin work on teacher raise plan

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