Florida Politics

More teachers, principals could qualify for ‘Best & Brightest’ bonuses

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, unveils a bill proposing the expansion of the ‘Best & Brightest’ teachers bonuses during a House Education Committee meeting on Friday, March 10, 2017.
State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, unveils a bill proposing the expansion of the ‘Best & Brightest’ teachers bonuses during a House Education Committee meeting on Friday, March 10, 2017. TAMPA BAY TIMES

More top educators in Florida would have a crack at an annual state bonus in the 2017-18 school year, under initial legislative proposals to expand a controversial, 2-year-old teacher incentive program.

While there’s more room for compromise this year, House and Senate plans, unveiled this week, likely won’t appease all critics because they keep intact a core premise that teachers’ unions have vehemently opposed.

To entice and reward the “Best & Brightest” teachers and — for the first time — principals who work in Florida public schools, lawmakers still want educators to demonstrate both “highly effective” teaching skills but also personal academic prowess in order to qualify for the extra cash.

Teachers and principals who tested well on the SAT/ACT back in high school could still use those scores as one way to meet the requirements, and going forward, lawmakers want to also let them use other, similar benchmarks — such as qualifying scores on graduate school entrance exams or teacher certification tests.

The inclusion of principals in the program is critical to expanding it, said state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is the House pre-K-12 education budget chairman and who is shepherding the House measure.

“We know the No. 1 factor in the student’s life is the quality of the teacher, but the No. 1 factor in getting teachers to those schools is the quality of the leadership,” Diaz said.

How many additional teachers and principals might be eligible under an expanded program is unknown — so is the price tag for exactly how much the expansion of “Best & Brightest” would cost taxpayers or how it would be paid for.

One key senator revealed last month that the House’s intent — with Senate support — is to pour as much as $250 million into expanding “Best & Brightest” next year. That would be five times the $49 million that lawmakers approved this year.

RELATED: “Florida lawmakers crafting plan for $250M in teacher incentives”

Altamonte Springs Republican David Simmons, the Senate’s pre-K-12 education budget chairman, reaffirmed that pledge on Wednesday when the Senate’s proposal was released. House leaders have been less committal to a figure and said Friday that an estimated cost hadn’t been determined.

The “Best & Brightest” program — the brainchild of current House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes — has been the subject of intense criticism since it was established in 2015.

Teachers’ union leaders and some lawmakers in both parties have complained that teachers’ personal academics and their performance in the classroom ought not to be linked.

“Just because you do well on a test doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good teacher — clearly,” Diaz said. “However, we know that if you put individuals with higher aptitude into the classroom, they have a better chance at being a highly effective teacher and impacting our students.”

The Florida Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the state, is “still evaluating” the Legislature’s new proposals, FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said.

However, he added: New teachers “need to know there is some consistency in their base pay — not just volatile bonuses.”

“Good research suggests some incentives can work, but several of the criteria being used to award the bonuses are untethered from research,” Pudlow said.

Some senators wanted to kill the program last year, but “Best & Brightest” was extended another year in a compromise with the House at the end of the 2016 session.

This spring, though, more universal agreement is on the horizon. The two chambers’ proposed bills are generally similar in expanding access to the bonuses, while differing subtly in how educators would qualify and in which teachers or principals might get priority above others.

“It’s encouraging at how close the bills are, that this is something that can really be worked out and really be a bicameral product, which sometimes is rare,” Diaz said.

Senators haven’t yet voted on their plan (SB 1552), but the House’s version got bipartisan praise in a 17-1 vote on Friday, when it was discussed in the House Education Committee.

Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the committee’s top Democrat, opposed it because although “we’re definitely on the right track, I have a few concerns,” he said.

“I would rather support it when we get down on the [House] floor, once we work out the kinks,” he said. The five other Democrats on the panel said they could still support it now in the similar hope that changes would be made before a floor vote.

Echoing the pleas of teachers’ unions, Jones added: “If we were to just give teachers a raise, then I don’t think we’d have to deal with the ‘Best & Brightest’ program. We could throw it out the window, and we could attract teachers just based on the salaries we have.”

But Republicans say it’s implausible to offer all Florida educators a raise. They argue if the Legislature gave more money to districts specifically to increase teachers’ salaries, the dollars would get bogged down in bargaining with local unions.

Lawmakers concede that increasing the amount of educators who could qualify for “Best & Brightest” would undoubtedly force the Legislature to designate significantly more dollars, or else the bonus per-person would plummet.

The annual pot of money that’s appropriated by the Legislature the past two years has been divided equally among all teachers who qualify.

In 2015-16, about 5,300 teachers qualified and received $8,248 each. This school year, nearly 7,200 teachers qualified and each got $6,816. (There are about 188,300 certified teachers statewide.)

That payout formula could change next year. The plans being considered call for giving a greater proportion of dollars to teachers at low-performing schools and schools that serve primarily low-income families, so as to encourage good teachers to work where they’re most needed.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark