By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Four years after lawmakers started a controversial teacher-bonus program, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he wants to scrap the “Best and Brightest” program and plow nearly $423 million into a new effort to reward teachers and principals.
The Best and Brightest program has faced opposition, at least in part, because it considers teachers’ scores on SAT or ACT college-entrance exams in determining eligibility for bonuses. The use of those scores has drawn state and federal lawsuits arguing that the program discriminates against older teachers and minority teachers.
During an event Thursday at Armwood High School in Hillsborough County, DeSantis also pointed to questions about the logic of looking at college-entrance exams in evaluating teachers.
“While there were some good things to that (Best and Brightest) and some teachers got some good bonuses, the way they did the program was not just whether you were a good teacher but then your SAT scores from going into college,” DeSantis said. “And a lot of folks didn’t think that that was necessarily the best way to do it because, quite frankly, that test is one moment in time and it’s not necessarily indicative of the passion … when you’re into the classroom.”
DeSantis said the new program could provide bonuses of more than $9,000 to nearly 45,000 “highly effective” teachers at schools that showed progress on grading calculations and bonuses of up to $6,500 for principals.
“What we’re trying to do is identify those teachers that are rated highly effective and that are helping their schools move forward,” DeSantis said. “And when they’re doing that, we think they should be rewarded.”
The proposed changes would require legislative approval during the session that starts March 5. The Best and Brightest program, which provides $6,000 bonuses to teachers, is in state law. House Republican leaders pushed for its creation in 2015 — a time when current Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran was the House appropriations chairman.
DeSantis last week released a proposed $91.3 billion state budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year that included $422.97 million for the new program.
Lawmakers set aside $234 million for the Best and Brightest program during the current year. In addition to considering performance on college entrance exams, the eligibility requirements for Best and Brightest also take into account whether teachers have been evaluated as “highly effective.”
Along with the new bonus program, DeSantis said Thursday he wants to provide $10 million a year for five years for a loan- and tuition-forgiveness program that would help recruit teachers. He said the program would provide aid to as many as 1,700 new teachers who commit to working in the state for five years.
“And the preference is going to be on areas of high need, and we have some areas of the state where the shortages are acute,” DeSantis said. “We have underserved areas. And so basically what we’re telling the folks is if you go to college, you rack up some of this debt, if you’re willing to do this and dedicate those five years, that we’ll be able to wipe that slate clean, up and to a pretty significant amount of money.”
The State Board of Education last month approved an annual report that, in part, detailed a shortage of certified science, English and math teachers in Florida’s public schools. Also, the report indicated schools that received “D” ratings for their performances over the past three years have higher percentages of out-of-field teachers than other schools.