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'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses might be continued through budget language


As legislation to make permanent the "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program remains in limbo this session, Florida House and Senate leaders are floating the possibility of a one-year extension by including the program -- once again -- in proviso language for the annual budget.

The controversial program predictably surfaced as a point of leverage between House and Senate education leaders this weekend as they started hashing out the 2016-17 budget.

The bonuses are a priority for House Republicans, but senators in both parties are especially reluctant to buy in to the idea.

By Sunday evening, lead education budget negotiators Rep. Erik Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz had agreed on the largest budget issue: how to fund increases to K-12 schools and by how much.

But the rest of the education budget remains unresolved.

The House rejected the first and only offer from the Senate, which included -- among a host of issues -- a proposed compromise on funding for the "Best and Brightest" program. The bonuses award "highly effective" teachers who scored in the top 20 percent on their high school SAT/ACT exams.

The offer from Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, was a broad this-for-that exchange of several priority areas, which was presented as "all or nothing" to the House.

Under Gaetz's offer, the Senate would have supported the House's desire to include the teacher bonus plan in the budget implementing bill -- allowing it to continue for a second year. The Senate would have also supported $22.5 million in funding, half the amount the House wants.

Fresen, a Miami Republican who's the architect of "Best & Brightest," refused the offer because he said the House couldn't meet it "in its entirety."

"Most of the issues … are closer than what it would seem," Fresen said.

But "Best and Brightest" doesn't appear to be one of them. The House's rebuttal offer kept "Best & Brightest" funding at the House's desired $45 million.

Fresen said it's "not a point of contention. It was just a matter of recognition that the numbers aren’t there yet."

Late Sunday (about 21 hours before their deadline), Fresen and Gaetz sent the education budget conference proposal to the House and Senate appropriations chairmen -- Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon -- for them to resolve in the next step of the budget process.

Some education advocates have concerns, though, about extending "Best and Brightest" simply through budget language, as Gaetz had proposed Sunday.

That's how the controversial program was enacted in the first place -- through language in the 2015-16 budget lawmakers passed in a special session last summer.

Several senators -- including Gaetz -- have been emphatic that they want a chance to debate and vote on whether to continue the program. They didn't have that opportunity last year; only the House did.

One senator spoke up Sunday in opposition to Gaetz's offer, specifically because it included "Best & Brightest."

"It would put the entire substance of 'Best & Brightest' in the implementing bill and deprive our Senate the ability to debate that issue without affecting the budget," said Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who sponsored the "Best & Brightest" legislation this year in the Senate solely so members could debate it.

"I would like it to be recorded that not the entire Senate supports this," Legg added.


The House's proviso language proclaims "the Legislature further recognizes that research has linked student outcomes to a teacher's own academic achievement."

But opponents of "Best & Brightest" argue there's no proven correlation between students' performance and teachers' high school exam scores, and Fresen has provided no evidence to counter that criticism.

The House approved legislation earlier this month to permanently extend the bonus program. But that measure has made slow progress in the Senate.

Legg's stand-alone legislation narrowly survived its first committee last month and would have allowed more teachers to qualify for the bonuses.

Rather than take up that bill in his Senate education budget committee, Gaetz added the House's proposal to one of his own education bills by means of a sweeping amendment that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved on Thursday.