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Half of Florida Districts, Citing Bias, Shun 'Merit-School' Program

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About half of Florida's 67 school districts are expected not to participate in the state's $20-million "merit-school" program, on the grounds that it is discriminatory and an "administrative nightmare."

Districts had until Monday of this week to submit proposals to the state department of education outlining how the money would be allocated among their schools.

But officials for the state affiliate of the National Education Association said only one of the 34 districts it represents was expected to participate, while a spokesman for the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers said about half of its 30 districts were expected to submit proposals.

Divided by Enrollment

The Florida program, approved by the legislature in June, stipulates that the $20 million will be divided among the state's school districts on the basis of student enrollment.

Half of the money allocated will go to the top 25 percent of schools in each district deemed to be "meritorious," based on test scores and other criteria of student achievement. The remaining half may be used to provide incentives for improvements in schools not designated as meritorious. (See Education Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

If a district does not submit a proposal outlining the critieria for student evaluation and how the funds will be used, its share of the $20 million will go to the participating districts, according to state officials. Program 'Defective'

John Ryor, executive director of the nea-affiliated Florida Teaching Profession, said his union urged the 34 districts it represents not to participate in the program even though all proposals submitted to the state education department are subject to bargaining between the school boards and the local teachers' union.

"Our local unions make a decision on what they will bargain for," Mr. Ryor said. "However, we put out a position paper which said the program is defective and counterproductive. We are not concerned about what the program will say about 25 percent of our schools, but what it will say about the other 75 percent."

Mr. Ryor said the program "administratively is just a nightmare to carry out" and argued that such merit programs should be tested selectively before being implemented statewide.

"As near as anyone can tell, this program will have absolutely no effect on attracting the best and the brightest," he said. "It will address only a few teachers and a few schools."

According to program guidelines, at least half the money allocated to each district must go to personnel in a merit school. The other half may be distributed as incentive awards to personnel in other schools. Union and state officials say they assume most of the money will go to salary bonuses for teachers and staff members. The bonuses are expected to be distributed next year.

Participation Urged

Richard Layer, director of government relations for the aft-affiliated Florida Education Association said his union urged all the school districts it represents to participate in the program.

"We thought there was an opportunity here to show some initiative," Mr. Layer said. "We felt the pluses outweighed the minuses." Most of the districts that did not submit proposals, he added, could not work out an agreement between the teachers and the local boards or simply ran out of time.

Frank Mirabella, a spokesman for the state department of education, said state officials were not surprised about the controversy surrounding the program.

"Anytime you have a merit-school plan, you are going to have some disagreement and some questions," he said. "No one ever came forth with a merit-school plan that wasn't controversial, and on that score we fully accept a lot of discussion. We think it's healthy."

Mr. Mirabella pointed out that four of the five largest school districts, representing 49 percent of the student enrollment, were expected to participate. One, Duval County, was still bargaining late Thursday night on a proposal, according to Erle Granger, a staff member of the aft-affiliated Duval Teachers United.

The Charlotte County Classifed and Teachers Association, which represents 16 schools, was the only fea-affiliated district to refuse to draw up a proposal.

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