Florida Union Challenges Teacher-Bonus Program

It wants higher salaries, instead of cash awards, to be state’s priority.

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Florida has announced three plans this year to tie teacher bonuses to improvement in students’ test scores. And all three times the plans have been challenged by the state teachers’ union.

At a Glance: STAR

Florida’s Special Teachers Are Rewarded, or STAR, program would reward the top 25 percent of teachers in districts that choose to participate with cash bonuses equaling 5 percent of their pay. The money is to be doled out at the end of this school year to individual teachers based on a district-designed evaluation system tied primarily to students’ year-to-year gains on tests.

The most recent pay clash comes over a program put in the current education budget by the Florida legislature.

Under that legislation, the state education department is charged with spelling out requirements for the $147.5 million bonus plan, which is designed to provide cash awards for the state’s top teachers. The 130,000-member Florida Education Association, however, has objected to the agency’s handling of that task.

But the union’s objection goes deeper than the rules for the program, according to union spokesman Mark Pudlow. “Until you have a good, competitive base pay, then bonus plans are not a good way of going,” he said, especially when the legislature is guaranteeing just one year’s worth of money for the bonuses. He estimated that Florida teachers were paid some $5,500 below the national average. The average salary for teachers nationwide was $46,000 in 2004, while Florida teachers earned $40,600 on average that year, according to Education Week’s Quality Counts 2006.

State Commissioner of Education John L. Winn squarely disagreed with that priority, calling the current teacher-pay system “a failed relic of the past.” Florida teachers, like the vast majority around the country, get pay raises primarily for longevity on the job and completion of college courses.

“It is unfortunate that the Florida Education Association is once again attempting to keep our best teachers from being rewarded for what matters most—increasing student learning gains,” Mr. Winn said.

The union last month asked an administrative-law judge to invalidate some of the department’s requirements, charging that they had been put into place without the necessary process. If successful, the challenge would likely slow down the state’s latest attempt to offer bonuses linked to student achievement. The bonuses would be paid at the end of the school year. Only Texas has a comparable teacher-bonus program, though it is limited to 1,000 schools in high-poverty districts.

Legislature Took Over

Florida’s program, known as Special Teachers Are Rewarded, or STAR, aims to reward the top 25 percent of teachers in districts that opt to participate. Cash bonuses equaling 5 percent of a teacher’s pay are to be given to individual teachers based on a district-designed evaluation system tied primarily to students’ year-to-year test gains.

Each district’s plan must be approved by state education officials. For a teacher making $40,000, the bonus would be $2,000.

Legislators stepped in with STAR last spring after a $55 million proposal from state school officials drew complaints even after the officials modified it. The revised plan would have mandated that at least the top 10 percent of teachers in each county school district get bonuses based on gains in student scores on state tests and other measures. ("Fla. Ready to Demand Bonuses Based on Test Scores," Feb. 22, 2006.)

Originally, the plan, known as E-Comp, would have rewarded the top 10 percent of teachers statewide in the subjects that are covered by state tests, without regard to how many were in a particular district.

The teachers’ union challenged both plans on administrative grounds.

State education officials said they advanced those ideas because districts had in effect flouted a 2002 law calling for test-score-linked performance pay. State figures showed that more than a third of the state’s 67 districts had paid out no money for the program in the 2004-05 school year.

One of the legislators who helped shape STAR said he is disappointed that the Florida Education Association, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is trying to hold up the new plan.

“Rather than rehabilitate something that was almost universally poorly received, we did try to learn from the criticisms,” said Rep. Joe H. Pickens, a Republican, who chairs the education appropriations committee in the Florida House of Representatives.

“I do think it’s a shame that the FEA would take a position that might deny 25 percent of their very best teachers … rewards for doing great work,” he added.

Still, even teachers inclined to agree with such a change wonder whether pay-for-performance is getting its best shot with STAR.

Susan Bischoff, an elementary school teacher in Bradenton, Fla., who is working with a group called TeacherSolutions to develop recommendations on teacher pay, said, “We need teachers at the table, …. union members and nonunion members alike, ” she said. “Our ideal plan would come from the bottom up.”

An administrative-law judge is expected to take up the union’s challenge next month.

Vol. 26, Issue 06, Page 16

Published in Print: October 4, 2006, as Florida Union Challenges Teacher-Bonus Program
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