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Legislature Votes to Replace Merit-Pay System in Florida

By Vaishali Honawar — March 27, 2007 4 min read
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The Florida legislature last week swapped its controversial merit-pay plan for teachers for one that would give school districts more say in how many teachers are rewarded and why.

The Merit Award Program would replace the Special Teachers Are Rewarded, or STAR, plan that has been forcefully opposed by teachers’ unions across the state and invited a court challenge from the Florida Education Association, a merged affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

By this month, 19 of the state’s 67 districts had not adopted STAR, although that meant they would lose their share of $147.5 million in additional state money for the 2006-07 school year. Union locals in 46 of the 67 districts rejected the reward system, but some districts decided to forge ahead with it anyway.

Union leaders said last week that the Merit Award Program, also known as MAP, is an improvement over past merit-pay versions. Unlike STAR, the program would be subject to collective bargaining, and unions and districts would work together to set up local proposals.

Less Reliance on Testing

Before STAR was passed in the 2006 session, the legislature approved a pay plan in 2002. But that plan did not fare as expected by legislators, with districts imposing strict eligibility requirements, as a result of which few teachers received rewards.

MAP, unlike those other plans, “is truly flexible and allows the local school district to craft what they need within a few parameters” set by the state, said FEA President Andrew Ford.

The bill represents a repudiation of the approach of former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican whose administration pushed STAR. The Senate voted unanimously in favor of MAP, and the House voted 110-4 for the new strategy. Both chambers are dominated by the GOP.

Current Gov. Charlie Crist, who took office in January, has said—unlike his predecessor and fellow Republican—that he doesn’t want teacher merit pay to be based heavily on standardized testing. Mr. Crist is expected to sign the MAP legislation when it reaches his desk. He has also said he would seek to increase funding for the program to $300 million next year.

“This legislation respects local control, relies on local innovation, and rewards those teachers who work the hardest and accomplish the most for their students, often under very difficult circumstances,” Sen. Don Gaetz, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said in a statement. The Republican, who worked with House leaders to put the new plan together, has described the STAR program as “badly flawed.”

Critics said STAR, which gives 5 percent bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers in each district, relied too heavily on students’ standardized-test scores and gave little time to districts to devise additional evaluation measures that would gauge teacher performance.

The plan’s unpopularity with teachers was also attributed specifically to its emphasis on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which teachers said made it unfair to those who taught non-FCAT subjects, such as music or art.

Under its guidelines, participating districts have had to base at least half of a teacher’s evaluation on student achievement measured chiefly by test scores.

MAP would allow students to take state, national, or locally produced tests, along with the FCAT. Districts would have greater say in how many teachers were rewarded, and they could also determine how much of the teacher’s raise would be based on test results. The evaluation would also consider a teacher’s subject knowledge, skill in managing classrooms, and ability to gear instruction to students’ needs.

‘Comfortable’ Plan

“Is this a perfect plan? No. Is it a plan we would design? No. But we’re comfortable with this as the best thing we’ve seen so far,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the FEA.

Superintendent Joseph Joyner of the St. John’s County schools, who is the president-elect of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, praised MAP for being designed to give districts more flexibility.

“We have never been opposed to rewarding high-performing teachers, but local decisionmaking was fairly nonexistent [in STAR], and that made it very difficult to get the teachers to really want to consider approval,” Mr. Joyner said.

The local union in St. John’s County earlier this year rejected the district’s formula based on STAR, but school officials decided to go ahead with it anyway. Despite teacher opposition, Mr. Joyner said, school boards felt compelled to push on with their proposals because the state could impose penalties for nonparticipation, such as taking away state-lottery funds.

Like some other districts that already have approved plans, his, too, will push ahead with the one it crafted based on STAR for this year, because there is not enough time for revisions before the new May 1 deadline. His 27,000-student district would get $1.4 million from the state for the 2006-07 school year.

But, Mr. Joyner added, the district will revise its merit-pay plan for next year. He also expressed optimism that the new system would make it easier for union and school officials to work together in the future.

Some union leaders emphasized, however, that in the long run, increasing teacher salaries, and not merit-pay plans, is the only real answer to bolstering teacher morale and retention.

Merit pay is a “diversionary tactic from looking at inadequate salaries and underfunded programs,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz, whose union represents teachers in the Miami-Dade County district.

“A bonus is something you cannot use to fund retirement,” she continued. “You cannot use it to fund a mortgage. It is not recurring.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Legislature Votes to Replace Merit-Pay System in Florida

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