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  1. Florida Politics

$200M for teacher incentives? Florida lawmakers crafting plan to do it

TALLAHASSEE — How much Florida spends to recruit and keep quality teachers for its K-12 public schools could potentially quadruple next year — and maybe even reach as high as a quarter of a billion dollars — under tentative plans being crafted in private by Republican House and Senate leaders ahead of the 2017 session.

Gov. Rick Scott last month recommended $58 million be spent in 2017-18 to fund a variety of teacher incentives aimed at replacing the controversial "Best & Brightest" bonuses that reward top teachers based on their high school SAT/ACT scores.

But one key senator revealed this week that legislative leaders want to propose vastly more money than Scott has, while keeping the best of "Best & Brightest" and expanding the incentives to benefit more teachers.

Their ballpark amount is $200 million or more in potential, said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, the Senate's pre-K-12 education budget chairman. There are 30,000 teachers in Tampa Bay who potentially could benefit from the windfall.

Simmons casually dropped the bombshell figure during his committee's meeting Wednesday and elaborated on it Thursday, when senators discussed Scott's budget recommendations and their own priorities.

Simmons said specifically that the Florida House — under Speaker Richard Corcoran's leadership — was creating a plan to possibly spend up to $250 million "to deal with" and expand "Best & Brightest." Simmons said the Senate has its own draft in the works, too.

The State Board of Education and Scott don't want the current program renewed for a third year.

When asked by the Times/Herald on Wednesday, neither Corcoran nor Hialeah Republican state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House's pre-K-12 education budget chairman, would confirm — or dispute — the figure Simmons cited.

Diaz pointed to the pending budget process, but he acknowledged the House and Senate are considering spending more on "Best & Brightest."

"We're looking at expanding the options that qualify a teacher, and that would really require a larger number," Diaz told the Times/Herald.

What exactly legislative leaders have in mind isn't public, so it's unknown what the additional dollars would go toward, whether it would be one-time or annual spending, how teachers might qualify or how the program would be paid for in a year when lawmakers — especially in the House — also want to rein in overall spending.

"I think we pay for it because we need to pay for it," Simmons told the Times/Herald on Thursday, referencing a looming nationwide teachers shortage. "I think there's $250 million in the budget to pay for this," he added without specifying from where the money might come or if another education program might have to sacrifice in the process.

"I'm not concerned that we're talking about $200-250 million," he said. "It's an investment; it's not an expenditure, and I think we can find it in an $83 billion budget."

A quarter of a billion dollars is about three-tenths of 1 percent of the total state budget and, more specifically, about 1 percent of the state's $23.4 billion pre-K-12 budget.

Leaders of local and state teachers unions — which have passionately criticized "Best & Brightest" — say they want more details about what lawmakers envision.

But some aren't optimistic.

"These guys don't get it. Hiring teachers is not the problem. Retaining them is," Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said in a text message.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, called the expanded incentives "a gimmick" by lawmakers "to avoid paying our teachers adequately."

"Teachers don't want bonus pay; they want real pay," she said, adding that permanent increases to the base student allocation — which could help districts afford to pay all teachers more — "is really the only thing that's going to help with our teacher shortage."

Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall agreed that lawmakers need to first address Florida's below-average teacher salaries, and "if this proposal works to alleviate this discrepancy, we could support it," she said in a statement.

"If it's another scheme like 'Best & Brightest' that doesn't address the core problems of paying teachers and education staff professionals adequate and competitive salaries, we'd have problems with it," McCall said.

The Legislature's formal budget process won't start for likely another month, after House and Senate leaders release figures on how much taxpayer money is available to spend for the year. Scott can make recommendations and veto certain items, but it's up to lawmakers to pass the annual budget.

The "Best & Brightest" bonuses — a creation of the Republican-led Florida House in 2015 and an ongoing priority for Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — have been besieged with criticism, because opponents argue top students don't necessarily make effective teachers. They also say it shortchanges minority teachers. The Senate reluctantly compromised in 2016 to extend the program another year with $49 million in funding.

Corcoran said in a statement Wednesday: "We've had great discussions with Sen. Simmons about how to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers. Final budget decisions will be made in the weeks ahead."

Simmons indicated Thursday that the crux of "Best & Brightest" might still remain but the Senate will seek to "take some of the sharp edges off." He said members of his committee will get a draft of the Senate's plan in "the next several days."

He said qualifying criteria for the expanded incentives could perhaps include "other avenues, such as a grade point average" and "something that would deal with the principals' own assessment, as to those who deserve to be rewarded for hard work and improvement of their students."

Simmons on Wednesday called Scott's proposal "a great step forward" but told Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart: "I think we need to start looking at the $200 million range so that we can be proactive and deal with what the House has been able to identify as a significant issue."

However, Simmons and Diaz both said lawmakers Scott's ideas could be blended into formal legislation that will be introduced in the coming weeks.

"We're looking through those proposals to see how that will fit in," Diaz said.

But some senators on Wednesday pushed back on parts of Scott's plan, such as his proposed $10 million for a "one-time hiring bonus" for new teachers who score in the top 10 percent in their subject-area exam for the subject they'll teach.

"It concerns me that we continue to look for the best performers in college — and not the best teachers," Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said.

Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, agreed.

"It seems to me that rather than just giving a check to a teacher upon graduation from college with no strings attached, we could perhaps offer some financial assistance with a contractual commitment while they're in schools of education," Young said. "If we're looking at recruiting and retaining, that seems a more targeted and efficient use of our taxpayer dollars."

Stewart defended Scott's proposal, saying research shows "when an individual has strong content knowledge, that does translate into better [student] performance in the classroom."

Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this story. Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark