There are a lot of bad ideas in education — really awful. But back in July, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran an editorial about a new one-year program in Florida under the headline “Worst and dumbest,” and it’s hard to argue with it. Unfortunately, it could soon get even worse.
As I wrote last June, the kooky program, ironically called “Florida’s Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarships,” is using $44 million of taxpayer dollars to give up to $10,000 bonuses to teachers who got high SAT and ACT scores before entering college — even if they took the test decades ago. New teachers would just need to show their test scores at or above the 80th percentile on the SAT and ACT, while veteran teachers would also have received a “highly effective” evaluation rating.
What about teachers with consistently great evaluations but who came through community colleges and didn’t have to take college admissions tests? Plumb out of luck.
What about new teachers who got high SAT/ACT scores but only have five or so weeks of teacher training through a program such as Teach For America? Ah, they are eligible for the bonuses. Quite the plum for them.
So how did such a cockamamie idea become a cockamamie $44 million program? That’s another interesting part of the story.
This was the brainchild of state Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, who somehow thinks that test scores are a good way to decide who is a good teacher — and that the lure of the bonus will entice “the smartest kids” to go into teaching, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The smartest kids to Fresen are the ones who do well on the SAT and ACT, and apparently the best teachers are, too. The wrongheadedness of both propositions is staggering.
In any case, as Jeffrey S. Solocheck wrote in this Tampa Bay Times story, Fresen’s bill didn’t pass the Republican-led Senate during the legislature’s session last spring, but somehow it was resurrected in a June special session and was included in the 2015-16 Florida education spending budget. As the Herald-Tribune reported:
“The bill went through absolutely no process,” [Republican State Sen. Nancy] Detert said. “Never got a hearing in the Senate. We refused to hear it because it’s stupid.”
State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, agreed. Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, blamed Gov. Rick Scott. “If the governor felt so good about vetoing not-for-profit health-care clinics and Manatee Glens,” he said, “why the hell didn’t he veto that line item?”
A better question would be: If the Best and Brightest bill was so bad and so dumb, how did it get past so many legislators? Yes, a $78 billion state budget is a massive document, but a new $44 million program is not your typical pork-barrel item of a $1 million or so tucked deep into the numbers. Plus, legislators are given 72 hours to study the proposed budget before voting on it. And the budget, which the Legislature failed to pass during the regular session, was the only legislation considered in the special session.
It turns out that about 5,200 teachers qualified and will get the bonuses soon — about 3 percent of Florida’s 170,000 eligible classroom instructors, the Sentinel reported, but there isn’t enough money to pay them all. One teacher not on the list: Florida’s teacher of the year, who was feted last summer at a black-tie event with Gov. Rick Scott.
And now, Florida lawmakers want to extend the program to go beyond one year. In fact, the state House education committee recently approved a bill to do just that. So this nonsense could easily last more than one year and waste more than $44 million.
But nonsense with standardized test scores is nothing new in Florida. In fact, the state, under former governor Jeb Bush, was a pioneer in the test-based “accountability” school movement, in which scores from highly questionable standardized tests were used to evaluate schools, districts, students and educators.
The testing system set up under Bush, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, became mired in scandal over the years, so much so that in 2012, after only 27 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient in an FCAT writing test — down from 81 percent the year before — the Tallahassee Democrat published an editorial that said:
“It’s not as if this is the first time problems with the FCAT — and the school grades closely associated with the FCAT — have made accountability impossible. Just look through some Tallahassee Democrat headlines going back 10 years: “State may see more ‘F’ schools: Changes in system may net more failures” (2002); “FCAT-grade criteria to get tougher” (2003); “New FCAT issues raised: Some say tests easier” (2004); “FCAT reading scores on the decline” (2005); “Florida schools granted leeway: It may mean more public schools pass” (2005); “School grading system may change” (2008); “FCAT audit to delay school grades” (2010); “FCAT writing scores drop across Florida” (2012).”
In 2013, seven Florida teachers and their unions challenged the state’s educator evaluation system, saying that it wasn’t fair the teachers were evaluated on the standardized test scores of students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach. In 2014, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that the teacher were in fact right that it was ridiculous, but, he said, it was legal.
Just like wasting millions of dollars with this “teacher scholarship” program.