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Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as State Teacher-Bonus Plan Catches Florida Districts Short

State Teacher-Bonus Plan Catches Florida Districts Short

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Confusion over the implementation of a Florida bonus program designed to help recruit and retain highly qualified teachers in the state's low-performing and alternative schools has led to a round of finger-pointing between state and district officials.

In at least four counties, district leaders report that they have tapped local funds, or are considering doing so, to help furnish $1,000 bonuses to all qualified teachers. They contend that state officials did not give them enough money to cover the minimum bonus amount for everyone.

But state officials assert that some districts were not discriminating enough in identifying those teachers whom the state truly intended to target through the bonus program.

"The bonuses have been divisive," said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, an organization formed by the recent merger of the state's affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. "There's not enough money to pay them all, and they've created tension in districts deciding who should get them and who shouldn't."

The $12.5 million incentive-pay program, approved by the legislature last spring, requires that districts grant bonuses of between $1,000 and $3,500 to "outstanding" teachers who have improved student achievement either at alternative schools or at those graded D or F under a state accountability system that assigns schools letter grades based on their performance on state tests.

Districts were left to outline the specific criteria teachers would have to meet to receive bonuses, but district leaders had to do so before they knew specifically how much money they would get from the state.

Money Runs Short

In Orange County, for example, district officials established that teachers had to have outstanding performance evaluations, and show improvements in their students' achievement data, to qualify for the money. The district determined that 1,363 teachers met those criteria, out of a total of 2,073 teachers in qualifying schools.

But when Orange County received payment from the state last month, district officials realized they would have only enough money for bonuses of $765 per teacher. So they cut checks to qualifying teachers for that amount on Oct. 18.

Two days later, all superintendents received a memo from state Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher saying that the law required the bonuses to be at least $1,000, and that districts awarding bonuses of less than that would have to make up the difference from their own budget reserves, or cut the number of bonus recipients.

"We're carrying out the law, and the law is specific," said Karen Chandler, a spokeswoman for the state education department. "The legislature did not intend to give across-the-board bonuses."

Orange County school officials are now using $345,000 of the district's own money to pay teachers an additional $235 apiece.

"They put something out there without giving us the whole scope and expected us to implement it," said Emma Brown Newton, the deputy superintendent of operations for the 146,000-student district. "Districts were scrambling to put something together, and it became a difficult thing. It became divisive. A lot of teachers felt they had worked very hard and missed the criteria by one student."

Evaluation Schemes Differ

William E. Hall

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the state's districts all have different systems for evaluating teachers, said William E. Hall, the superintendent of the 61,500-student Volusia County school district. Volusia uses a three-tiered approach for teacher evaluations, identifying teachers who meet expectations, need improvement, or are unsatisfactory.

Because teachers who were judged last year as meeting expectations also had to demonstrate student-achievement gains, the district decided that all teachers in qualifying schools who fell into that category would receive bonuses. District officials wound up, like their counterparts in Orange County, with too little money from the state to pay $1,000 bonuses to everyone.

Volusia district leaders have not yet decided how to resolve the matter, but they do not want to give bonuses to teachers based on more-subjective measures.

"This is a piece of legislation that was passed with good intentions, but the homework was not done to determine what it was going to cost," Mr. Hall said. "When that happens, the responsibility is placed squarely on the shoulders of school boards, and we're scrambling for every penny we can get."

Rep. Evelyn J. Lynn, the Republican legislator who sponsored the bonus program, said lawmakers estimated that the amount of money they allocated was adequate to cover bonuses for "truly outstanding teachers."

"Our intention was to encourage those outstanding teachers who work in those schools to stay in those schools," Ms. Lynn said. "And that's not how it turned out in implementation. We're going to have to be much more definitive in terms of what our intentions are."

But even in Escambia County, where district officials identified outstanding teachers and doled out $1,200 bonuses with none of the administrative difficulties other districts faced, the bonuses have created turmoil, said Barbara Frye, a spokeswoman for the 44,500-student district.

"The process we had was a smooth process," Ms. Frye said. "But our teachers don't believe in it—they don't believe it's a fair system. It's created low morale and discontent."

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Pages 23,27

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