The chairman of the Florida Senate's education budget committee said Wednesday there's a very good reason the chamber didn't include funding toward continuing the new "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program in its proposed budget for 2016-17: The program hasn't been vetted by the chamber yet.
A bill to continue the program, currently in its inaugural year, is moving slowly through the Senate, but it's far from guaranteed to pass.
"It’s my sense we need to fully vet the policy; we didn’t have a chance to do that last year," Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the chamber's Appropriations Committee.
The House debated the program last spring, and first-year funding of $44 million was ultimately added to the final state budget during the special session over the summer.
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The controversial program offers bonuses to teachers who are rated “highly effective” and score in the top 20th percentile on their SAT or ACT exams when they took them in high school. First-year teachers are eligible simply based on their exam scores.
It is a priority item for the Florida House and the brainchild of House education budget chairman Rep.Erik Fresen, R-Miami. Legislation to renew it is ready for a full House vote.
Fresen describes it as both a recruitment and a retention tool, but critics say there's no evidence of a correlation between teachers' old high school test scores and student performance. The state's largest teachers' union also argues it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.
Acknowledging the "confusion" and "frustration" teachers have expressed, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, on Wednesday asked Gaetz for an update on the Senate's proposed funding for the program -- which was notably absent from its initial budget plan released last week.
"We can have full a debate on 'Best & Brightest' and any changes that might be necessary to the program, prior to making any kind of commitment on behalf of the Senate for funding," Gaetz said.
The House budget includes $45 million for the teacher bonuses, $1 million more than this year. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget plan recommended $39 million toward it.
Two bills could be vehicles for the "Best & Brightest" program in the Senate: a standalone bill by Sen.John Legg, R-Trinity, or another by Gaetz, which deals with performance funding and is ready for consideration by the full Appropriations Committee, should the panel take it up.
Flores on Wednesday joined other Republican and Democratic senators who have previously expressed hesitation about the bonus program's eligibility requirements.
She questioned rewarding teachers based on the their own SAT scores, "something that's outdated, and seen as an input rather than an output, as it relates to student success." She said she would prefer to base bonuses on whether teachers have national board certifications -- which the Legislature used to do.
"I think that would be a better route for us to take," Flores said.
Gaetz said the Legislature stopped funding that program during the economic downturn several years ago, in part, as a cost-cutting measure because there was no evidence proving "a cause-and-effect relationship" between teachers' certifications and student performance -- a complaint of the "Best & Brightest" program today.