Photo by News Service Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis has been tight-lipped about the details of his teacher-compensation plan for the upcoming legislative session, but this week he suggested doing away with a controversial bonus program.
Yet a number of Republican lawmakers and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran say they want to keep bonuses in teacher-pay discussions during the 2020 session.
“Bonuses will always be a factor because you have to make differentiations when they are justified,” Corcoran said Friday during a State Board of Education meeting, when board member Michael Olenick urged him and the governor to focus on salary increases rather than bonuses.
A few days later, though, the governor told reporters that the framework of the current “Best and Brightest” bonus program is “very complicated,” and he may not necessarily want to include the program as part of his teacher-compensation package.
“I can tell you that we are going to do something significant on teacher recruitment and compensation,” DeSantis said Tuesday, adding that his proposal will be “more than just a token” for educators.
With details of the governor’s plan —- and its cost —- under wraps, some education policymakers and budget-writers say they are already sifting through options to improve teacher pay for next school year, whether the changes involve tweaks to the Best and Brightest program or salary increases.
“I am hopeful that we will see an across-the-board salary increase … but if you are talking about salary increases, you also have to take a look at our bonus program, and that is the Best and Brightest program,” House Education Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said last week.
The last time lawmakers agreed to an across-the-board teacher pay raise was in 2013, when the Republican-dominated Legislature settled on a $480 million package. School districts were also given the flexibility to award the money based on local collective bargaining agreements.
This year, a potential $2 billion price tag is being floated as part of a teacher-compensation package, according to Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is the House’s top education-budget writer.
“The increase this year would be much greater than in 2013,” Latvala said, adding that House staff members are running the numbers of what a salary increase would look like.
When asked about the $2 billion number, the governor’s office declined to comment and instead provided a statement, saying DeSantis “is supportive of identifying ways to reward our hard-working teachers.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he is open to continuing the bonus program or making changes to it and thinks salary increases should be “seriously” considered during the session that starts Jan. 14.
“I continue to hear from educators in my district that they would prefer to see a more-stable income stream than having the bonus that goes from year to year,” Bradley said last week.
He added it would be worthwhile to have discussions with the House and the governor on changing the funding of the bonus program, which has faced legal challenges.
The state has reached a proposed $15.5 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association over allegations that the Best and Brightest program discriminated against black and Hispanic teachers.
In the lawsuit, filed in 2017, the union alleged that the use of SAT and ACT scores in determining whether teachers receive bonuses had a “disparate impact” on black, Hispanic and older teachers. The money from the proposed settlement, which is pending before a federal judge, would go to black and Hispanic classroom teachers who were rated as “highly effective” for their classroom work but did not receive bonuses since the program took effect in 2015.
This spring, the Legislature passed a bill that removed the SAT and ACT requirement from the program, something DeSantis pushed for after taking office in January.
A second lawsuit against the bonus program alleges state education officials improperly allowed school districts to deduct employer taxes from teacher bonuses, cutting into the financial awards of tens of thousands of high-performing educators.
Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said he has talked with Corcoran about the need to have a compensation package linked directly to salaries and retirement, rather than bonuses. But he said Corcoran remains supportive of bonuses.
“So, while we are far apart on the idea of how to address teacher compensation, we have seen common ground that something must change this year,” Ingram said in a statement.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is a former Leon County school principal and superintendent, said teacher pay is not a bipartisan issue, but it is unusual for the whole Legislature to prioritize it.
He added he is “optimistic” that will change next session with the backing of the governor.
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