Mirroring other actions in the early days of the 2016 session to encourage friendly relations between the House and Senate, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, invited the House's education budget chairman to join senators in a discussion Wednesday about the controversial "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program.
Legg, chairman of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, acknowledged the "unorthodox move," but said he wanted to hear directly from Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, about the 1-year-old program, which is Fresen's brainchild and which House leaders want to continue.
"It is a good-faith effort to work with the House on a priority of their's," said Legg, one of several senators questionable of the program.
During an hourlong discussion, Fresen defended the teacher bonus plan, which critics allege was snuck into this year's budget during the special budget session over the summer. He refuted that and cited several committee hearings in the House last spring, in which the program was debated in various forms.
But such hearings never occurred in the Senate, so Wednesday was among members' first opportunities to debate the program.
Lawmakers allocated $44 million for the 2015-16 budget to give bonuses to the state's "Best and Brightest" teachers -- those who scored in the top 20 percent of their year when they took SAT or ACT exams in high school. For teachers who are more than a year into the job, they'd also have to be rated as "high-performing" in order to be eligible for the cash.
More than 5,300 teachers statewide qualified in the program's inaugural year. They're each due to receive $8,256.27 in April, according to the Department of Education.
The bonus plan has come under intense scrutiny and has sparked a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The FEA argues the program discriminates against older teachers and minority teachers because they're less likely to be eligible.
Fresen's effort to see the "Best and Brightest" program continue faces hurdles in both the House and Senate this year, and its chances are unclear.
Senators on Wednesday -- both Republicans and Democrats -- probed the mechanics of the program, and many said it didn't make sense, particularly when there's no direct correlation between effective teachers and those who score well on standardized exams.