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Politics

Performance pay plan for teachers under fire

By Ron Matus
Published January 11, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - Jeb Bush has been out of office just nine days, but lawmakers already are taking a critical look at one of his key education initiatives.

At its first meeting of the year, the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee gave a frosty reception Wednesday to the state's performance pay plan for teachers, which aims to give 5 percent bonuses to teachers whose students show the biggest gains in test scores.

The Legislature passed the $147.5-million Special Teachers Are Rewarded plan in the waning days of last year's session - Bush's last as governor. Since then, its rollout by the Department of Education has been widely criticized as rushed.

Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County schools superintendent, reacted with skepticism to a presentation on the plan by K-12 chancellor Cheri Yecke. At one point, he asked her the same question three times. At another, he responded sarcastically when Yecke said some teachers are moving to Florida because of performance pay.

"I would like for you to prepare data for us ... as to the numbers of teachers moving into the state in order to take advantage of the STAR system," he said.

After the hearing, Gaetz called the plan "hastily conceived" and "very confusing" and said it was likely a "more thoughtful, more workable" plan will be considered during the legislative session that begins March 6.

"I'm for pay for performance," he said. But "the Legislature last year could have learned a lot from listening to teachers."

Performance pay is a given in the private sector, but it's controversial with teachers. For decades, they have been paid according to experience and education degree, factors that don't show a strong correlation with increases in student achievement.

Supporters say awarding bonuses based on student performance will drive bigger academic gains. But critics say the plan pits teachers against one another when the goal should be more collaboration. STAR rewards the top 25 percent of teachers.

Palm Beach County superintendent Art Johnson, one of four superintendents who appeared before the committee, likened STAR to the losers in Monday's national championship game.

"If players win games, teams win championships," Johnson said. "STAR is like Ohio State. It's not a championship program."

Sarasota County superintendent Gary Norris said he liked the idea of rewarding the best teachers. But the science of measuring student achievement - and the contribution of individual teachers - "is not there yet," he said.

Yecke said some of the criticisms were valid. The legislation creating STAR "required it be done in one year," she said. "In a perfect world, we would have had more time."

But she remained confident that while lawmakers may tweak the program, they won't back away from the concept.

The tone at Wednesday's hearing was a change from the former governor's take-no-prisoners approach on education issues. Under Bush, the state teachers union often complained it had no input. After Wednesday's meeting, one union official seated in the audience said, "I almost had to pinch myself."

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 11, 2007, 00:55:31]


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