School officials criticize pay plan

Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 10:46 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Four school superintendents told a Senate committee Wednesday that lawmakers were too hasty last year in passing a statewide performance pay plan for teachers and urged them to take more time to get it right.

The $147.5 million Special Teachers are Rewarded, or STAR, program will allow school districts to give the top 25 percent of their teachers bonuses averaging about $2,000 each this year.

The bonuses will be based mainly on how much a teacher's students have improved on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, or other standardized exams.

Superintendents said they aren't against the idea of performance pay, noting school districts already have their own programs, but the rush to get STAR going in only one year is causing all kinds of problems.

"The timing of the implementation of STAR has created a huge amount of anxiety among our teaching staff," St. Johns County Superintendent Joe Joyner told the Senate Prekindergarten-12th Grade Committee.

The superintendents also said giving bonuses to only 25 percent of teachers and the emphasis on test scores will damage the cooperation and teamwork vital for good schools.

Gilchrist County Superintendent Buddy Vickers said when he asked a group of teachers about the STAR plan "the word that came out was 'greed.' "

"They immediately looked at each other and said, 'I'm not going to help you anymore because I want to be No. 1,' " Vickers said.

Palm Beach County Superintendent Arthur Johnson drew a comparison with the University of Florida's recent victory in the national championship football game.

"STAR is like Ohio State," he said. "It is not a championship team."

Lawmakers need to act on performance pay this year because the STAR plan exists only as proviso language in the annual state budget. It will expire when a new budget goes into effect July 1.

Options include letting the program die, enacting a substantive law or putting STAR in the next budget.

A legal challenge by the state's teachers union may knock out the last option and shelve STAR this year, too.

The Florida Education Association contends the proviso language is an unconstitutional modification of an existing performance pay law, which requires school districts to give bonuses to 5 percent of their teachers with local dollars. Those plans lack STAR's heavy emphasis — at least 50 percent — on student test results.

FEA also said it has commissioned the RAND Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., to conduct a $75,000 study of the STAR program.

The House 21st Century Competitiveness Committee also is studying the issue. Its chairman, Rep. David Simmons, R-Maitland, said his goal is to come up with a revised plan that would at least marginally satisfy all parties including the teachers union.

Each of Florida's 67 school districts has submitted a STAR proposal, but the State Board of Education has approved only four so far.

"It can't be done in six months," said Sarasota County Superintendent Gary Norris. "There's no time for collaboration. ... There's no time for understanding the criteria."

Norris said it's too late to have pretests and there's no time to field test assessment criteria.

Cheri Pierson Yecke, state chancellor for kindergarten through 12th grade, defended STAR against critics such as Sen. Frederica Wilson. The Miami Democrat complained that STAR is another step toward turning schools into "FCAT drill factories" and students into "little robots."

Yecke said teachers who do that shouldn't be in the classroom, but she predicted those who win the bonuses will be the ones who get the most out of their students by making learning fun.

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