In a pivotal vote, a Senate education committee on Wednesday narrowly gave its support for continuing a controversial program that awards teacher bonuses based, in part, on how well they did on college-entrance exams.
Although the "Best and Brightest" program is in its first year, senators didn't debate it last year -- only the House did -- so Wednesday's vote was the first true test of legislative support for it in the 2016 session.
Its chances, at this stage, in the Senate: Not good.
Senate Bill 978 barely passed the Pre-K-12 Education Committee by a 6-5 vote, with Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity -- the bill sponsor -- joining the panel's four Democrats in opposition.
It could have died in that committee were it not for a couple of Republicans -- including Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice -- who said they only voted in favor of it this time so as not to kill a priority of the House during the second week of the legislative session and so as to give other lawmakers an opportunity to fix it.
After criticizing the "ill-thought-out" eligibility criteria in the bonus plan, Detert finished her remarks by imploring House leaders: "Could you please put in the time to make it a bill we can be proud of, instead of one we’re ashamed of?"
The program offers bonuses to teachers who are rated "highly effective" and score in the top 20th percentile at the time they took the SAT or ACT in high school. First-year teachers are eligible simply based on their exam scores. Both criteria would change going forward under the Senate version that advanced Wednesday.
The Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union which represents 175,000 teachers, is challenging the program and alleges it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.
Lawmakers from both parties share that concern and also question the correlation between student performance and teachers' years-old -- or even decades-old -- SAT or ACT exams. There's been no data presented to show a connection.
"It does discount our veteran teachers and does not recognize their efforts," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said. "This whole relationship does not make sense to me."
Calling it one of his concerns also, Legg agreed: "We have to pass it in order to get the data to see if it works."
"I couldn’t bring myself to vote for it," he told reporters after the meeting. "I think there’s significant reservations among the senators but there’s a willingness to give some deference to the House and keep it alive and not kill it Week 2."
Legg said he sponsored the Senate version so senators had an opportunity to vet the program, which was considered in various House committees last spring and ultimately folded into the state budget during the special session in the summer.
House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is leading the House effort again this session and told senators in a workshop last week that he wants the bonuses to incentivize young, smart Floridians to enter the teaching profession and stay there as they get older.
Some senators applauded Fresen's goal but said there are likely better ways to achieve that, such as improving teachers' base salaries. Legg said he has his own ideas, but he has other priorities he wants to focus on this session.
"Quite frankly, I wasn’t willing to put the sweat equity into addressing those issues," he said. "I’d rather work on other legislation that I think I can get through."
Lawmakers allocated $44 million for the 2015-16 budget to give bonuses to the state's "Best and Brightest" teachers, and more than 5,300 teachers statewide qualified in the program's inaugural year. They're each due to receive about $8,250 in April, according to the Department of Education.
The legislation the Senate committee approved Wednesday lowers the requirements in the future, making it easier for more teachers to qualify. Teachers would need to have scored in the 60th percentile or higher on their college entrance exams and be rated "highly effective."
In a rare victory for a Democratic member in the Republican-led Legislature, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, narrowly secured an amendment to the bill that delays eligibility for new teachers until they have two years' experience.
The change initially passed 10-1, but Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, cited "some confusion" and called for a re-vote, which led to the amendment passing 6-5 with support from Democrats, Detert and Legg.
Three other amendments offered by Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, were rejected along partyline votes. They would have required eligible teachers to have degrees from accredited colleges of education and allowed teachers to substitute the mandatory SAT or ACT scores for either receiving "highly effective" ratings for four straight years or earning National Board or subject-area certifications.
"The rewarding of teachers isn’t the problem," Bullard said of the bonus plan. "It’s using an assessment that someone took when they’re 17 years old to qualify someone who may be in their 50s and 60s now."
Senators appeared more open to a re-write of the bill, rather than fixing it piecemeal.
"I think the idea of getting the best and brightest to teach in our public schools is nobel," Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said. "But I believe there are national experts that can tell us how to do this in a much better way that isn't as crude or as simple as this way is."
Legg's bill now goes to the Senate education budget committee, its second of three scheduled committee stops in that chamber.
Fresen's version (HB 7043) keeps the 80th-percentile threshold and the first-year eligibility. That legislation was a product of the House Education Committee, which passed it 14-3 in December. It's been referred to only one committee -- Fresen's -- where it awaits a hearing.