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  1. Opinion

Pay teachers more, but dump the failed bonus pay plans | Editorial

Focus on better standard pay and creating classrooms where their students can thrive.
Published Dec. 6, 2019

Give Gov. Ron DeSantis credit for focusing on education in the first state budget proposal he can call his own. He has properly made teacher pay a priority, and proposing to spend $600 million to raise beginning teacher salaries to $47,500 -- jumping the minimum by nearly $10,000 -- reflects a commitment that Florida’s public schools sorely need. But lawmakers should ignore the governor’s suggestion to create still another flawed “performance pay" bonus system and instead spend the $300 million on teacher salaries and the classroom.

Florida has tried and failed with one bonus system after another over the past dozen or so years. Most infamously, the Best and Brightest plan once upon a time awarded money to teachers for SAT scores they had earned while they themselves were teenagers, scores that were designed to measure their ability to perform in college, not to teach in a classroom.

Philosophically, bonus plans could have their place -- if they were able to meaningfully measure an individual teacher’s ability to raise a student’s performance above what was expected and if the additional money was layered upon fair base pay. So-called value-added models theoretically make sense, but they’re difficult-to-impossible to implement in the real world. The governor’s proposal doesn’t even try. It would simply give bonuses to teachers and principals whose schools rose a certain percentage on the scores that make up the state’s flawed school grading system. So bonuses would be awarded based on how well a school -- not an individual teacher -- performed. An excellent teacher at an underachieving school would not get a bonus. A mediocre teacher at an overachieving school would get the money without earning it. That’s a bad system that would pit teachers against teachers and staff against staff.

DeSantis’ “performance” pay plan has one redeeming quality. He would double the bonuses at Title I schools, those with a high percentage of low-income students. The governor is right to be thinking about the best ways to entice good teachers into Title I schools, where they are desperately needed, and he deserves credit for pondering ways to reward them for achieving success in tough teaching environments. But this proposal is not the way to achieve those laudable goals.

Bonuses have another downside. They are unpredictable. If the bonus is outside a teacher’s control -- as any bonus based on schoolwide, not individual teacher’s, performance would be -- a teacher could not budget for that money as she could with a conventional raise. And no amount of individual initiative and skill could affect an entire school’s performance.

The governor will have enough difficulty persuading a reluctant Legislature to spend as much as he wants on teacher salaries, particularly when there are so many competing needs in a state budget that must balance. He should not dilute his campaign to raise teacher pay by backing a confusing bonus plan that will cost a lot and yield little. He should instead focus on raising teacher pay, as he did in his original proposal, and putting any additional money directly into the classroom where it can do the most direct good.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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