Published Online: December 11, 2009

Fla. Ties Federal Grant Money to Teacher Merit Pay

Florida is linking its application for $700 million in federal education grant money to the adoption of local merit pay plans, which have been unpopular among teachers in the past although that could be changing.

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said Friday that the statewide teachers union needs to study the plan Education Commissioner Eric Smith sent to school superintendents Thursday before making a decision on it.

Most teachers historically have opposed salary plans that tie their pay to student performance as measured by standardized exams such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. That includes the state's optional Merit Awards Program, which is based 60 percent on tests and 40 percent on evaluations by principals.

Most of Florida's 67 school districts and their local teachers unions have declined to participate in that program, even though it's meant turning down state money for the bonuses.

The circumstances, though, are different with the state's application for Race to the Top money being offered by the Obama Administration, Pudlow said.

"It's a new world," he said. "The changed circumstance, obviously, is that there's a big pot of money involved, and the state is in great need."

Tight budgets over the past two years have forced school districts to lay off teachers and other employees, curtail travel and take other steps to cut costs.

Pudlow said state officials also have consulted with the union on the grant plan — something that also didn't always happen in the past.

The FEA, though, has advised local unions not to do anything until the association reviews Smith's proposal and gets some questions answered.

The proposal says if school districts want to receive grant money they'd have to implement compensation programs for principals and teachers that tie "the most significant gains in salary to effectiveness demonstrated by annual evaluations."

Those evaluations would have to be based at least 50 percent on the FCAT or other tests for subjects and grades not covered by the state exam. An exception would be made for collective bargaining agreements reached between July 1 and Dec. 1, if testing is at least 40 percent of the criteria and greater than any other component of the evaluation.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, he expects most districts will agree to the plan, but the real difficulty will come if the grant is approved. Districts then would have only 90 days to negotiate merit pay plans with their local unions.

"That 90 days, obviously, is going to be very intense," Blanton said. "It's going to be tough."

He said he wouldn't expect all districts to reach agreements before the deadline.

In a letter to superintendents, Smith wrote that the federal grant program offers Florida a chance "to break from the status quo."

"We may never again see this level of commitment to improving education across the national and by working together the finish line is in our sights," Smith wrote.

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