April 21, 2013

House, Senate agree on merit pay raises for teachers

The agreement reached by House and Senate budget negotiators sets up a fight with Gov. Rick Scott, who wants all teachers to receive salary increases.

The House and the Senate aligned their position on teacher pay raises Sunday, putting the Florida Legislature on a collision course with Gov. Rick Scott.

The two chambers have agreed to spend $480 million on salary increases for educators — the same figure Scott has in his budget.

The key difference: the Senate and the House are insisting on performance-based raises, while Scott is championing $2,500 across-the-board increases for every classroom teacher in Florida.

The governor is holding firm on his proposal, one of his top priorities for this year’s legislative session, which ends in early May. House and Senate leaders said they didn’t see Scott’s plan becoming reality.

"The Governor has priorities. The Legislature has priorities," said Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers late Sunday. "There's still enough time left to determine how successful this session will be for all of us."

Said House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, earlier in the day: "Regardless of how you look at it, [teacher raises] will have a methodology that ties the increases to merit," said House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Reaching consensus didn’t come easily for the two chambers.

Initially, the House had wanted to spend $676 million and then adjusted the number to $628 million late last week. But on Sunday the lower chamber decided that $480 million would be OK.

There had also been some discrepancies over how much flexibility the districts ought to have with the cash. The House wanted to give school systems more freedom than the Senate. But Fresen said the House and Senate were close to reaching consensus on that front, too.

The two chambers also agreed Sunday to a new way of calculating per-student spending, which would result in an $8 million cut to virtual education programs, according to documents provided by the House. The change was necessary, lawmakers have said, because students enrolled in virtual programs were receiving a larger share of money than students in brick-and-mortar schools.

Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, insisted the change would "not harm Florida Virtual School."

"It’s not hurting the program if there is some inequity in a program and that inequity is corrected," he said.

Despite the consensus reached Sunday, a handful of education issues remain unresolved, including the 6 percent tuition hike House Speaker Will Weatherford has been pushing for the state’s universities.

On Sunday, the House said it was willing to come down to a 4 percent increase.

Galvano said he would have to evaluate the new offer. On Saturday, however, he said the Senate would hold its position that tuition not be increased.

Herald/Times staff writer Tia Mitchell and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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