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Florida Merit-Pay Plan To Exclude Many 'Teachers of the Year'

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Tampa Fla--Florida's merit-pay program--heralded as the nation's first statewide, performance-based bonus system for teachers--will apparently bypass many teachers recognized in the state's teacher-of-the-year program.

Interviews with Teachers of the Year from 47 of the 48 Florida counties that named a top teacher in 1983 indicate many of those identified as the state's best may go unrewarded when the bonuses of up to $3,000 go out next winter. Only 36 percent of the teachers of the year are eligible to apply for merit pay.

Sam Rosales, a teachers' union leader in Tampa, responded to the information by saying, "Surely they [Florida lawmakers] could have figured a way to exclude all of the best teachers."

Master's Degree Hitch

The obstacle for most teachers of the year is the 1983 legislature's decision that only teachers with certain master's degrees--those specifically pertaining to the subject they teach--would be eligible for merit pay.

Twenty-one teachers of the year have no master's degrees. Seven have a master's degree that does not meet merit-pay guidelines. Two do not know where they stand because some of those guidelines need further interpretation.

The master's degree requirement has created other ironies beyond barring a majority of teachers of the year from winning merit pay.

Anna Wollard was chosen the best of the 1,000 teachers in Clay County. She also was named a "competency reviewer" by the state to evaluate teachers considered below par to see if they could be helped.

"Here your county says you are one of the best teachers and the state says you are an expert, but you can't get merit pay," Ms. Wollard said. "It's deflating."

Bernice McSpadden, Bay County teacher of the year, is also a trainer of the evaluators who will help determine which teachers deserve merit pay.

But because she has no master's degree, she herself is out of the running before the evaluation process even begins.

"It's rather ironic, isn't it, that you have to have a master's degree to get merit pay and you have to have a master's degree to evaluate teachers who want merit pay, but I'm allowed to train the evaluators," Ms. McSpadden said.

No Such Degree

Robert Bossong, Dade County's teacher of the year, is noted for his success with disruptive youths that other schools have given up on, but he cannot earn a master's degree in the vocational area he teaches because such a degree does not exist.

If he is denied merit pay because of that technicality--he has a master's degree in curriculum--Mr. Bossong said he will sue the state.

State officials devoted to the concept of merit pay are undeterred by such criticism.

They say the teacher-of-the-year selection process--although sponsored by the state--is more of a popularity contest than a professional evaluation. And they argue that some flaws are to be expected in any new program.

"This is a ground-breaking of sorts," explained Kern Alexander, Gov. Robert Graham's education consultant. "We never said there won't be some room for improve-ment. But we think we've got a solid foundation."

No Action Foreseen

Whether the repairs to the merit-pay program will be made this year is a hotly debated topic as the 1984 legislature prepares to go into session in two weeks.

Top staff members in both houses say leading lawmakers may block any attempt to tamper with the merit-pay law this year for fear opponents might succeed in killing the entire program.

"The last word from the speaker's office is that we will keep the law intact this session and wait until next year to make any changes," a ranking staff member said.

Michael Farrell, staff director of the Senate Education Committee, added, "I don't think we're going to initiate any changes over here."

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