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'Best & Brightest' teacher bonus plan goes to Florida House floor



A comprehensive education reform package -- which includes controversial bonuses for K-12 schoolteachers based on how well they did on the ACT/SAT -- cleared its only House committee on Thursday and is headed to the chamber floor for consideration.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is the lead sponsor of House Bill 7043 -- a work product of the House Education Committee last fall. It had been referred to only one committee -- Fresen's education budget committee -- which passed it 9-4, with the panel's Democrats in opposition.

Bills typically have multiple committee references, which can increase the difficulty of passage. The fact that Fresen's was referred to just one reinforces its status as a priority for House leadership.

Fresen's bill includes five major items:

-- it creates performance-based funding for the state college system, similar to what universities have now;

-- it revises the universities' performance-based funding formula and codifies the existing plan so it doesn't expire;

-- it revises the "pre-eminence" funding for Florida's top two research universities and creates an "emerging pre-eminence" status to encourage other universities to grow in that effort;

-- it establishes an educator liability insurance program, so teachers are covered up to $2 million for job-related claims;

-- and it "memorializes in statute" the Best & Brightest teacher bonus program, which lawmakers tacked on to the budget this year.

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.

The concept is Fresen's brainchild. He calls it both a recruitment and a retention tool, telling a Senate panel earlier this month that "common sense would tell you that a smarter person may do a better job teaching."

But critics say there's no proven correlation between teachers' high school test scores and their ability to be effective and improve student performance in the classroom. The state's largest teachers' union, representing 175,000 teachers, also is challenging the program and argues that it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

The 2015-16 budget included $44 million for the program's first year. More than 5,300 teachers statewide qualified in the program’s inaugural year. They’re each due to receive about $8,250 in April.

During the House hearing Thursday, there was minimal discussion about the program compared to the Senate, where members spent an hour last week -- on top of a previous workshop -- debating the program's merits. The Senate has similar legislation regarding "Best & Brightest" and college- and university- performance funding, but they're broken up into different bills, while Fresen's legislation is more comprehensive.

"This bill is designed to provide Florida students with the best education possible, from grade school to postsecondary school," Fresen said in a statement after Thursday's committee vote. "By passing this bill, we will be able to attract and retain the highest quality teachers to our classrooms, make sure our colleges and universities are equipping students for success in the workforce, and create more world class universities by providing additional support to our emerging preeminent schools."

The Senate "Best & Brightest" bill narrowly survived its first committee stop but it has tough odds to pass its two others. The Senate sponsor, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, isn't invested in the legislation, saying he sponsored it so that the chamber had a chance to debate the program -- an opportunity they didn't get last session, although the program was later included in the annual budget adopted during a special session.

Another indicator of the Senate's reluctance for the program: The Senate budget plan, released earlier this week, recommends no funding for "Best and Brightest." Meanwhile, the House education budget -- which Fresen also unveiled Thursday -- includes $45 million for the bonuses, $1 million more than this year. (Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget plan recommends $39 million for it.)

The Senate's working bill also is more watered down than Fresen's proposal, by making it easier for more -- and more experienced -- teachers to qualify as "Best & Brightest." In the Senate version, teachers aren't eligible until after two years in the profession and they would have had to receive scores in at least the top 40 percent during the year they took the ACT or SAT. 

The House version was amended Thursday to add one notable change from this year's program: Eligible teachers in Title I schools -- those with high numbers of students from low-income families -- would get $1,000 off the top, and the remaining annual appropriation would be divided equally among the remaining teachers who qualify.

Photo Credit: Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. The Florida Channel