Florida Politics

‘Best & Brightest’ teacher bonuses will continue another year

Ricardo Regueiro, a 7th-grade civics teacher, uses tablets to teach his class at W.R. Thomas Middle School.
Ricardo Regueiro, a 7th-grade civics teacher, uses tablets to teach his class at W.R. Thomas Middle School. Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade Public Schools

Over opposition from rank-and-file lawmakers and other critics, the controversial “Best & Brightest” teacher bonus program will continue for at least one more year — and with $5 million more in funding.

Under a compromise struck to favor House leaders, the Senate has agreed to allocate about $49 million in 2016-17 to reward “highly effective” teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores.

That’s the same controversial manner in which the program was enacted last summer. Senators this session wanted to avoid that by having a floor vote on the “Best & Brightest” policy but haven’t had that opportunity.

So, the budget deal has spurred frustration and backlash from most Democrats and some Republicans — particularly in the Senate.

The deal was announced late Monday evening, when House and Senate appropriations chairmen revealed publicly the proposed education budget for 2016-17 and other remaining budget items — the product of days of closed-door negotiations. The final total budget is expected to be printed overnight so lawmakers can vote on it in time for session to end Friday.

The $49 million for next year is $5 million more than what lawmakers allocated this year and $4 million more than what the House asked for. That extra $4 million came on a list of “supplemental funding” projects, released for the first time Monday evening.

Critics of “Best & Brightest” emphasize there’s no evidence that teachers’ high school test scores are indicative of their ability to be effective in the classroom. The state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, also argues it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, last week said the leadership’s intention to continue the program solely through budget language was troubling.

Legg said that tactic “empowers the Senate leadership over the Senate members and it looks like they’re siding with the House members more than Senate members.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said budget negotiations involve compromise on 160 lawmakers’ priorities.

Lee — with support from Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando — said he agreed to fund “Best & Brightest” in the budget again “in deference” to House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, because the program is a priority for the Land O’Lakes Republican.

The Senate also had several of its priorities met, Lee said, mentioning as examples the $90 million for students with disabilities programs and the $50 million on intensive reading instruction for the state’s 300 lowest-performing schools.

Supporters in the House — including Corcoran, who’ll be the House speaker starting in November, and Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen — argue the teacher bonuses are a retention and recruitment tool to encourage smart high-school students to become educators.

In order to qualify, teachers must be rated “highly effective” and have scored in the top 20 percent in the year they took their SAT/ACT. First-year teachers, who have yet to undergo a performance evaluation, can qualify solely on their exam score.

About 5,200 teachers of the state’s nearly 172,000 teachers qualified this year.

Simply so senators could vet the program this session, Legg sponsored a standalone bill that would permanently extend the program but with criteria to make it easier for more teachers to get the bonus. That proposal narrowly survived a single committee in January but then stalled.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, was the deciding vote then. She supported the bill — even though she opposes the program — to move it forward in the hopes it would improve prior to a floor vote.

“It’s too bad we didn’t get to that point. I would rather vote it down and kill it permanently, because it’s the worst and dumbest,” Detert said Monday, “but if they put it in the budget, I have no choice but to vote for the budget.”

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