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Florida To Pay $20 Million to 'Merit' Schools in 1985-86

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With the allocation of $20 million for distribution in September 1985, Florida is expected to become one of the first states to establish a comprehensive "merit-school" program.

The intent of the new program is to improve education by rewarding individual schools and their staff members. But while state officials are enthusiastic about the plan--similar to proposals in various stages of development in California, Michigan, and Tennessee, among other states--it is running into opposition from some teachers, who have also heatedly repudiated some elements of the state's merit-pay program. (See accompanying story.)

Student Enrollment

The Florida experiment, approved by the legislature in June, stipulates that the funds will be divided among the state's 67 school districts on the basis of student enrollment. Half of the $20 million is to be channeled to the 25 percent of each district's schools that are deemed to be "meritorious." The remaining $10 million may be used to provide incentives for improvement in schools not designated as meritorious.

School districts are not required to participate in the state plan, but those that choose to must submit to the state department of education by Oct. 1 a plan outlining the criteria for evaluating student achievement and showing how the funds will be spent.

Schools may be designated meritorious on the basis of various criteria, including standardized-test scores, according to Ralph Turlington, Florida's commissioner of edu-cation. But he has warned school districts not to rely solely on test scores.

The legislature did not intend, he said, "to create an unreasonable shift toward increased testing and over-reliance on such test scores for making awards."

Awards Criteria

Officials suggested that the criteria can include student participation in school organizations and special events; achievement in state, regional, or national academic competition; and improved standards of student discipline.

How the funds are actually spent, officials say, will be up to the individual district and will be determined in negotiations between school boards and teachers' unions.

Mike O'Farrell, staff director of the Senate Education Committee,el5lsaid it is up to the local school boards and unions to determine how the money will be used.

The funds can be used only for programs that "promote student achievement" and reward teachers financially, officials said.

The money can be used for such purposes as increasing the salaries of teachers, rewarding merit among teachers, funding staff-development programs, and conducting related research.

Objections Voiced

Some critics of the program have objected to the emphasis on meritorious schools and question the criteria on which they will be selected, claiming there is a danger smaller or poorer school districts will be overlooked.

Teachers in the Pinellas School District have already said they will refuse the money rather than go along with the program.

Mr. O'Farrell said the legislature was aware of such dangers.

"We didn't want to come up with a system that would only benefit suburban upper-middle-class schools to the detriment of inner-city schools, or vice-versa," he said. "For the most part, meritorious schools are based on relative comparisons rather than absolutes."

Union Views

The two major teachers' organizations in the state, the Florida Teaching Profession, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and the Florida Education Association/United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, have expressed conflicting views on the merit-school program.

"We have tried to take the position of being very flexible," said Jim Geiger, the fea's first vice president. "We think this program is broad enough that it could include a number of the kinds of things teachers have been pushing for for a long time."

"The program could include a system where money is awarded to teachers working in an inner-city school and increased the longer they stay," he said. "There could be research projects to improve instruction or money for teachers to leave their classrooms and observe others. I think there is a lot of flexibility."

Mr. Geiger said the important point is that the plan "cannot be imposed by the school boards."

The fea represents approximately 35,000 of Florida's 90,000 teachers.

Eligibility Limits

"We do not like the program," said Ruth Holmes, president of the fta She said the union had opposed the program from the beginning because it limits eligibility for merit awards to the top 25 percent of schools and ties the awards to students' test scores.

Ms. Holmes said her union, which represents 32,000 teachers, fears the program is a "Band-Aid approach" to public education.

"The answer is to put funds in all public schools and adequately pay teachers," she said. "This program calls for a quota. By law, we're saying only a certain number of schools in the state can be meritorious. We think they all should be."

Ms. Holmes said the union is not telling the teachers it represents not to bargain on the program, but she added, "I don't think most of our teachers will bargain unless they can come up with something fair and nondiscriminatory and administratively feasible."

Test Scores Opposed

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said his union would not go along with a program that uses test scores to determine teacher compensation.

"We will not participate in any plan that is inherently divisive, one that pits one group against another," Mr. Moore said.

Mr. Moore, whose district is the fifth largest in Florida, said parents may become concerned if their children go to a school that is not named as meritorious, particularly if the students are bused away from an area with a school that is labeled meritorious.

If it chooses to participate in the program, the Pinellas district will receive approximately $1.12 million in merit-school bonuses.

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