Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing to revamp a multi-million-dollar bonus program for Florida’s best classroom teachers, but it may not be easy.
The proposals will pit the governor against the Legislature on configuring the best way to recruit, retain and reward teachers.
And educators will be looking for more than just a bonus or “scholarship” as the law describes – they want higher salaries across the board.
“We will be urging the governor and the Legislature to go one step further: We need competitive salaries for teachers and education staff,” Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement.
DeSantis visited a Hillsborough County high school Thursday to announce reforms in the “Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program.”
Nearly 45,000 teachers who are highly effective in the classroom would be eligible for bonuses exceeding $9,000, according to the proposals outlined by the governor’s office.
In addition, principals could get bonuses up to $6,500, “to reward those who are creating classroom environments to help students thrive,” according to a news release.
Overall, DeSantis’s proposed budget for the program is $423 million, which lawmakers would have to approve.
Few details have emerged on how the bonuses would be reconfigured, and it could be easier — or harder — to get a bonus.
What is clear is that DeSantis wants to ditch the use of tough college entrance exam scores for teachers to get the bonuses, going against the Legislature and current law.
Now, for example, teachers need high scores on the ACT or SAT college entrance exams to be eligible for a $6,000 bonus. The scores, usually used for college admissions, are supposed to reflect that a teacher has a high level of academic achievement and should be designated among Florida’s best and brightest.
That’s what lawmakers intended when the law on the bonuses was approved.
The law says that research shows student performance is tied to a teacher’s own academic achievement. “Therefore, it is the intent of the Legislature to designate teachers who have achieved high academic standards during their own education as Florida’s best and brightest teacher scholars,” the law says.
That’s where the college entrance exam scores come in.
To get the $6,000 bonus a teacher has to score at least in the 80th percentile on either the ACT or SAT at the time he or she took those exams.
Right now, the 80th percentile for the ACT is a composite score of 26, according to the ACT company. That equates to about a 1240 on the SAT.
Those are high scores to achieve, making it more difficult to get the bonuses. And the college entrance exam scores have been unpopular in part because some are decades old and may or may not reflect a teacher’s current academic achievement.
The Florida Education Association was a critic of the teacher bonus program when it was initially proposed, saying the program was unfair and potentially discriminatory.
“Gov. DeSantis has addressed some of the FEA’s concerns, such as the program’s use of teachers’ personal college admissions test scores in determining bonuses and its unfairness to minority educators,” the teacher union said in a statement.
“The FEA appreciates that the governor has listened and is moving quickly to revamp the program, and we look forward to working with him.”
State Sen. Janet Cruz, representing part of Hillsborough County, remains concerned about the lack of overall pay raises for educators.
“Simply put, a bonus is not a raise and will not impact the lives of all teachers throughout Florida,” Cruz said in a statement.
“If we are going to end this growing teacher shortage and recruit and retain the best possible educators for our children, it is vital that Florida offer a base salary for all school personnel that is competitive with the rest of the nation.”
DeSantis is also proposing a “Teacher Talent Pipeline” involving a loan and tuition forgiveness program for new teachers who commit to working in Florida for five years. The program would span $10-million per year for the next five years.