Controversial scholarship rewards teacher

As eligible teachers turn in their applications for Florida’s Best and Brightest Scholarship, some veteran instructors tell FOX 35 they’re concerned that those with the most experience could wind up short changed.
The legislation appropriates $44 million for “teachers who have demonstrated a high level of achievement.”  Eligible teachers could be awarded up to $10,000 each.  The award money could be prorated if more than 4,000 eligible teachers apply.

Tracy Fitzgerald, a Lake Brantley High School English teacher with 30 years of experience, said the bill is “outrageous” because whether or not veteran teachers qualify for the bonus hinges on their ACT or SAT scores from high school.  “It seems really dismissive of the talents that I developed.  I’m a competent teacher and nothing about my SAT score has made me a competent teacher,” Fitzgerald said. 

First year teachers who have not been evaluated are eligible for the bonus based only on the scores from their college entrance exams.  Nichele Harris, a Lake Brantley High School teacher with 14 years of experience, noted that the bonus could put a first-year Seminole County Schools teacher at the same salary level as a teacher with 22 years of experience. 

Veteran teachers are eligible for the bonus if they scored in the 80th percentile on their ACT or SAT exam and they’ve earned a highly effective rating from their school district.  Some long term teachers can’t apply for the scholarship because they don’t have their scores, Harris said.  Teachers who went to community college weren’t required to take college entrance exams and others no longer have the exam scores handy, Harris said. 
“[For] some of us that was 10,20,30,40 years ago," Harris said.

According to a memo to teachers from Seminole County Public Schools staff,  teachers who took the SAT before 1972 would not be able to access the information they needed to apply for the scholarship.  The district advised that teachers who didn’t have scores to submit could take the ACT on September 12, but there was no guarantee results would be available to meet the October 1 deadline for applying for the scholarship.

“I don’ think there’s a parent in Florida that would appreciate a teacher stopping the planning hours that we do in our own time and the grading papers and the preparing of our classrooms at this point to study for an ACT to have those test scores to submit,” Harris said.  

State Representative Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, has been a teacher for 16 years [He is not eligible for the scholarship because he doesn’t work in the classroom due to the Legislature’s schedule].  “When I first heard about [the Best and Brightest Scholarship] I was concerned,” Plasencia said. 

When he learned that the $44 million in money—which was appropriated outside the state’s regular education budget-- could be awarded to teachers with minimal red tape he “wasn’t as concerned just thought it could have been done differently.”

“I may not be in agreement with all of the facets of the bill or all of the facets of a specific policy like this one, but the fact that it’s putting [up to] $10,000 in some of my co-worker’s pockets, I think that’s a great thing,” Plasencia said.  He agreed that college entrance exams aren’t the best way to predict one’s effectiveness as a teacher, but it is a way to figure out how to distribute a relatively small sum of money.

School districts report that teachers are showing interest in the program.  One month after the Florida Department of Education sent an email to school districts explaining the program, 80 eligible teachers had turned in applications to Orange County Public Schools.  A Seminole County Public Schools spokesman said the district has not yet tallied the number of applications that have been submitted to each school’s principal.

Fitzgerald said she is considering submitting an application because she can’t afford not to and she doesn’t want lawmakers to get the impression that teachers aren’t interested in being paid more. 

The Best and Brightest Scholarship was introduced by State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.  Despite repeated attempts by FOX 35 to speak with him about the legislation, he could not be reached for comment.  The money for the Best and Brightest Scholarship was a one-time appropriation written into the state budget.  If the program is to continue, lawmakers will have to set money aside again next year.