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Union Turns to Courts to Block Florida's 'Unfair~' Merit-Pay Program

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Both of Florida's teachers' unions have now turned to the courts to block implementation of the state's new merit-pay program. In separate suits, they are arguing that the program is unfair and violates collective-bargaining laws.

The Florida Teaching Profession, an affiliate of the National Education Association, filed its suit this month in the Leon County Circuit Court.

The Florida Education Association/United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, also challenged the program in a suit filed in the same court last No-vember. A hearing was scheduled for this week in the fea case, which the state has asked the court to dismiss, according to James W. Geiger, the fea's first vice president.

The ftp suit asks the court to block the state's "merit school" program as well as the master-teacher program. With a first-year price tag of $20 million, the "merit school" program approved by the legislature last year awards extra money to school districts on the basis of the achievements of individual schools. ftp officials have called the program "flawed" and "discriminatory," but the fea supports it because it involves the teachers'6unions in the application and selection process.

Pay for Performance

Approved by the state legislature in 1983 and put into effect this year, the merit-pay program will pay bonuses of $3,000--half in June and the balance in September--to 6,333 of the state's 90,000 elementary and secondary teachers on the basis of performance evaluations and their scores on subject-area examinations. About 35,000 teachers have applied for the program, one of the first of its kind in the nation.

Earlier this month, the controversy surrounding the program was heightened when an optical scanning machine processing applications for the program rejected about 3,400 teachers because their applications were either incorrectly filled out or incomplete.

After the teachers' unions and Gov. Robert Graham complained, the department of education announced that most of the applications that had been rejected because of errors would be reconsidered, said Garfield Wilson, director of teacher education and certification for the department.

'Glorified Bonus'

Officials of both organizations argue that the state should increase teachers' salaries overall before earmarking money for a special salary program. As of 1983, the average teacher's salary in Florida was $18,275, placing it 35th among the states, according to U.S. Education Department figures.

"We support the idea of a career ladder," Mr. Geiger said. "But this is nothing more than a glorified bonus. It should be scrapped and replaced with a real career ladder."

Commissioner of Education Ralph D. Turlington said he sees the master-teacher program "as a kind of a career ladder" that rewards teachers for seniority, knowledge of their subject, and classroom performance.

"Such a program must be fair, equitable and administratively feasible," said Ruth D. Holmes, president of the ftp "We don't see how this program can be administered fairly. Because of the appropriation, only 6,000 teachers can get the money. If 30,000 qualify, then 30,000 should get the money."

Of the teachers applying, only those scoring in the top quartile on the subject-area examination and the performance evaluation qualify for portions of the $10 million appropriated for the program in its first year. The 6,333 teachers receiving the highest scores on the performance evaluation will receive the awards, Mr. Wilson said.

Subject-area tests are not yet available for teachers of such low-demand courses as Russian. These teachers may qualify if they have a master's degree in their subject area, Mr. Wilson added.

'Circumvents Bargaining'

Union officials also argue that the master-teacher stipends violate Florida's collective-bargaining laws, which stipulate that wages, hours, terms, and conditions of employment be subject to collective bargaining. "This program circumvents the bargaining process," Ms. Holmes said.

But Mr. Turlington said last week that the collective-bargaining issue is not relevant. Collective bargaining relates to the employee and the employer, and a teacher's employer is the district, he said. The master-teacher program, on the other hand, "is something the teacher qualifies for through the state, not the district."

Mr. Turlington acknowledged that the program has had some problems in its first year, and while he called it a "good program," he said there will be further refinements.

"This has been an experiential year; we have set our standards high," Mr. Turlington said. "We will look at our standards and adjust them based on our experience."

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