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Florida State Board Waives Tests for Merit Pay

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Tallahassee, Fla--Merit-pay proponents in Florida successfully blocked a bid last week by Attorney General Jim Smith to delay for one year implementation of the state's new performance-based bonus system for teachers.

But Gov. Robert Graham and Education Commissioner Ralph Turlington were unable to stop the Governor's Cabinet, acting as the State Board of Education, from voting to waive one of the merit-pay requirements--that teachers take a test to prove their competence in the subject areas they teach.

Victory for Teachers

The waiver represented a major victory for the teachers' unions, whose leaders have insisted it was discriminatory to test some teachers and not others.

Only 18 subject-area tests for teachers have been developed by the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., test-making organization, and only six of those have been found by committees established by Mr. Turlington to be suitable for use in Florida. The rest were considered not difficult enough.

The six tests would cover subject areas taught by only about 20 percent of the 28,000 teachers who have applied for merit pay.

Mr. Graham and Mr. Turlington proposed that the Florida Department of Education develop its own exams, but other Cabinet members said there was insufficient time to do so and a hurried effort could be fatal to the program. Many said they were already worried the program would be the target of numerous lawsuits.

Mr. Smith called the program "a mess."

"We would be meeting our responsibility ... to go to the legislature and say, 'We made our best effort. We think merit pay is good idea, but let's do it next year."'

Delay Opposed

Governor Graham and Mr. Turlington successfully fought off Mr. Smith's call for a one-year delay in the program, which is scheduled to begin soon and produce the first bonus checks of up to $3,000 per teacher by December.

But they were unable to stop the Cabinet from waiving the test requirements, prompting Governor Graham to say the state was going to appear to have a "lack of commitment to the merit-pay concept."

"I am disappointed and frankly shocked," the Governor said.

Mr. Turlington was not as pessimistic, predicting that the testing may still take place.

"The action [by the Cabinet] really is that we are not to test until we have tests. But they also said to keep developing tests. And we say we can have tests available" this fall, he explained.

Bonus Requirements

Unless Mr. Turlington's agency does come up with some acceptable tests and Cabinet members change their minds, the requirements for the bonuses--at least for the first year--will be three years of experience, an acceptable attendance record, a master's degree, and a superior classroom evaluation.

However, the House of Representatives' education committee has already called for removal of the master's degree requirement.

The final determination on the entire program will be made by the legislature. Lawmakers will decide in the next six weeks whether to fund the merit-pay plan this year as they said they would.

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