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Florida Incentive-Pay Experiment Dies Quietly

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Once a leader in the incentive-pay movement, Florida last week quietly marked the changing times by mailing the last salary installment owed to master teachers before the expiration of its career-ladder law.

The state effectively ended its turbulent, five-year experiment with incentive pay when the legislature--without debate, comment, or hearing--took no action to fully fund the program before adjourning June 8.

The incentive-pay measure, enacted as a master-teacher program in 1983 and revised into a career-ladder plan in 1986, contained a provision that scheduled an automatic repeal in the event the legislature failed to appropriate $90 million for the program by July 1, 1988.

Some 3,000 teachers who qualified for extra pay under the 1983 master-teacher plan were sent checks for $2,400, ending the state's obligation to them.

Beset by funding woes, lawmakers never considered Commissioner of Education Betty Castor's request this year for $16 million to fund pilot projects under the program.

'Dying a Slow Death'

Staunch opposition to the original merit-pay program from the state affiliates of both national teachers' unions also quelled enthusiasm for the initiative.

In late 1984 and early 1985, state affiliates of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers filed lawsuits, charging that the merit-pay program violated state collective-bargaining laws and seeking to halt its implementation. Union officials also criticized lawmakers for passing an incentive-pay program at a time when Florida's average teacher salary ranked 35th among the states.

Although both unions subsequently supported the revised career-ladder program, the early years of controversy muted the public's support.

The career ladder "has been dying a slow death for years,'' said Cathy Kelly, government-relations manager for the Florida Teaching Profession, the National Education Association affiliate.

The Florida Education Association United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, will work in the future to have the statewide career-ladder program restored, its president said.

"It was an opportunity lost,'' Pat Tornillo said, describing teachers as "disappointed'' about the program's demise.

Programs Being Rethought

Other states have been revising or rethinking their incentive-pay programs for teachers. Alabama joined Florida this legislative session in ending its career-ladder program by withholding funds.

According to the Southern Regional Education Board, 29 states either have full-scale incentive programs, pilot projects, or legislation allowing such pay systems.

Lynn M. Cornett, director of S.R.E.B.'s career-ladder clearinghouse, said states that have made a financial commitment to performance-based pay are maintaining or expanding that commitment. She noted, however, that states that have not made a commitment are retrenching.

The Florida program, she said, "never got under way.''

In 1983, Florida joined Tennessee and Utah as the original states to adopt pay-incentive programs for teachers.

The Florida Master Teacher Program was adopted as part of an agreement with the state's business community to support higher taxes in return for greater school accountability, officials recalled.

Florida's original plan was more purely a merit-pay system than the proposals adopted by other states, said Ms. Cornett.

Only 3 percent of the state's 94,000 teachers qualified for higher salaries based on evaluations conducted in the program's first year. The plan envisioned that a maximum of 10 percent of the teaching force would qualify for extra pay, ensuring opposition from the vast majority who did not, according to a 1985 consultant's report.

Critics said the program had been enacted with little guidance from teacher's organizations or local educators. And the state department of education rushed too quickly to implement it, the management study later concluded.

In 1986, the legislature attempted to salvage the incentive-pay program by scrapping the master-teacher concept and replacing it with what officials called the Career Achievement Program.

That program called for school districts and teachers to develop local career-ladder guidelines that were to be approved by the education department.

But by 1986, state officials concede, too many mistakes had been made; the program had soured many educators and legislators on the incentive-pay idea.

At the same time, leadership changes in the governor's office as well as in the House and Senate helped to push the career-ladder plan from priority lists, said Michael Kane, president of the Teacher Compensation Work Group.

The group, now inactive, was a coalition of nine business and education organizations that supported the concept of performance-based pay.

"I think the business community got fed up with the politics,'' said Mr. Kane, explaining its silence.

Mr. Kane said business groups were promised that the career-ladder program would be funded as long as districts were interested in participating. In 1987, 40 of the state's 67 districts submitted local plans but lawmakers declined to approve the funds to implement them.

"It was a very unpopular program,'' said Michael O'Farrell, staff director of the Senate education committee. "The teachers didn't like it. The administrators didn't like it. The school boards didn't like it. The public had a mixed reaction to it.''

"When the legislators started looking at the cost figures the commitment just was not there,'' he said.

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