According to Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, last year just over 9200 teachers in Florida qualified as Best and Brightest Scholars, the teachers who were both rated highly effective and had 80th+ percentile scores on the SAT or ACT. Between the $6,000 for the “scholar” designation and the $1,200 bonus for being highly effective, the net $7,200 represented an increase of over 13% to my base pay of $54,000.
At no point, however, in any of the announcements from either Governor Ron DeSantis or Senator Manny Diaz, has there been any mention of grandfathering in the previous recipients. Instead, it would seem nearly 10,000 teachers working in the Sunshine State–which already ranks 45th nationally in terms of pay–are about to take a substantial pay cut.
To be blunt, these bonus schemes are a horrible way to increase teacher recruitment and retention in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage, especially considering one never knows how long they will last. But teachers are desperate to earn more money however they can, and that is the primary reason my wife and I leapt at the chance to take the ACT in the fall of 2016 when I returned to the classroom after spending time as a new teacher mentor. We both passed the necessary benchmark and have received the money for the last few years, but now it would seem we might potentially see a loss of $14,400 between the both of us.
What’s worse, we both feel responsible for encouraging many of our friends and coworkers to take the test, only to know that they too will face devastating pay cuts if the Florida Legislature’s latest version of Best and Brightest does not earmark money for those who have previously earned it. After all, the way HB7069 had written future dates and expanded criteria into the legislation seemed as if these bonuses were here to stay, with many (if not most) of the recipients planning their finances around these dollars coming in perpetuity.
Shame on us all for forgetting that this is Florida.
But let’s be honest, Best and Brightest was never a good idea. There is zero correlation between how well a person teaches and his or her scholastic aptitude. My original SAT scores from when I was 16 never would have qualified me for Best and Brightest, but at 41 when I sat down to take the ACT on that fateful Saturday morning, I was highly motivated to perform my best due to the economic incentive. Did passing the test help me become a better teacher, though? Absolutely not. Beyond the money, the only thing the test gave me was a sense of accomplishment for attaining my personal goal of scoring in the 99th percentile.
Yet here we are again, pitching a new cockamamie version of Best and Brightest program to help 45,000 lucky teachers with even more fickle metrics beyond their control such as a one point uptick in school grades. It seems glaringly obvious that these bonuses are largely concocted to circumvent collective bargaining / local control of funding by individual school districts, as well as to avoid having these dollars calculated into our paltry pensions from FRS. And just to add insult to injury, the state even goes so far as to direct the local districts to pay their portions of the payroll taxes from the lump sum, in effect taxing teachers twice.
The Florida Legislature needs to do much better than this. In the midst of statewide teacher shortage, our elected officials should start by taking all $400 plus million and sharing it with all education professionals who work with students regardless of whether or not they are in the classroom. ESPs, guidance counselors, media center specialists…anyone who has direct contact with kids on a daily basis deserve so much more than what they currently earn, especially when we take into account that Florida ranks 37th in terms of affordability (it’s the 13th most expensive state in which to live). While Senator Rader introduces bills each year to raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000, his idea is routinely ignored by his fellow legislators. Instead, we will probably continue to see more bonuses such as Best and Brightest, and if the Florida Legislature obstinately continues down this road, the least it could do is not penalize previous recipients by significantly cutting their current earnings.