The amount of money Florida spends to recruit and keep good teachers for its K-12 public schools could potentially quadruple next year, 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, which would replace the controversial “Best & Brightest” teacher bonuses that reward top teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in high school.
But one key senator revealed Wednesday that lawmakers are exploring a vastly larger amount than Scott proposes — in order to keep the best of “Best & Brightest” and expand the incentives to benefit more teachers.
Their ballpark amount? More like $200 million or more in potential funding, said Sen. David Simmons, the Senate’s pre-K-12 education budget chairman.
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The Republican from Altamonte Springs casually dropped the bombshell figure during his committee’s meeting Wednesday, when senators discussed Scott’s budget recommendations.
But it’s too soon to tell what exactly the money would go toward, whether it would be one-time or annual spending, how teachers would 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.
The Legislature’s formal budget process won’t start for likely another month, after House and Senate leaders release budget allocations that indicate 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 now-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes — has 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.
Simmons said Wednesday the Florida House was working on a plan to possibly spend $200 million to $250 million “to deal with” and expand “Best & Brightest.” The State Board of Education and Scott don’t want the program, as-is, renewed for a third year.
When asked by the Herald/Times, 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 “looking at an expanded number” for “Best & Brightest.”
“We’re looking at expanding the options that qualify a teacher, and that would really require a larger number,” Diaz told the Herald/Times.
Corcoran said in a statement: “We’ve had great discussions with Senator Simmons about how to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers. Final budget decisions will be made in the weeks ahead.”
We’re looking at expanding the options that qualify a teacher and that would really require a larger number.
House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah
Although a few senators expressed continued reservations Wednesday about rewarding teachers based on their own academic performance, Simmons noted that he supports the “Best & Brightest” program “with some tweaks” — such as offering incentives to teachers who relocate to low-performing schools.
And Simmons said he agrees with Diaz that significantly more money should be spent on teacher incentives than the governor recommends.
He 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.” He also noted that incentives will be even more important given a looming teachers shortage.
Diaz said lawmakers are looking at possibly blending Scott’s ideas into legislation for the proposed teacher incentives, which will be introduced in the coming weeks.
“We’re looking through those proposals to see how that will fit in,” he said.
Meanwhile, some senators took issue with some of the specifics 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. Those senators expressed concern that its approach was too similar to “Best & Brightest.”
“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.”