Grades are in: Bonus plan is farcical mess

A Times Editorial
Published March 2, 2007

If Gov. Charlie Crist is puzzled about why teachers from his home county overwhelmingly rejected bonus pay, he need only look at the seven local formulas that state education bureaucrats rejected. Performance pay, as it is being hastily mandated throughout Florida, has become a game of political gotcha. And teachers want no part.

In Pinellas, teachers rejected the bonus plan by a staggering vote of 4,266 to 191. In Broward, the margin was 97 percent against; in St. Lucie, 96 percent; in Hendry, 95 percent; in Duval, 75 percent.

The teachers are not the only ones showing their disgust, either. At least eight elected School Boards have put their own counties at financial risk by refusing to send a bonus plan to the state Department of Education. In Pinellas, the effort was led by a board member, Jane Gallucci, who is currently president of the National School Boards Association. As Gallucci put it: "If you let the bully bully you, you get bullied again."

The bully is Tallahassee, and newly elected state Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa school superintendent, knows the score. Of the Special Teachers Are Rewarded mandate, he says: "It wasn't debated. It wasn't subjected to a committee process, to testimony, to review, to analysis. ... The STAR system was poorly designed and ... is inherently flawed."

Gaetz's brutally honest assessment raises a question of basic fairness: Can the state possibly punish school districts this year for deciding they could not, in good conscience, take part? DOE has claimed it would sanction Pinellas and others that don't submit plans. But DOE's authority is dubious, and such punishments would only further divide the education community.

Performance pay was intended to reward teachers who do the best jobs, but it won't work without a fair system of evaluation. Crist himself has argued that a wide variety of factors, including student performance and a principal's evaluation, should be considered. But the STAR plan, as is now being carried out, is viewed as merely another way to rate teachers on how their students score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. For teachers whose students don't take the FCAT, the standards are even more curious. DOE has recommended, for example, that art teachers be judged by how well their students perform on reading tests.

What teachers resent is a state bureaucrat who has never stepped inside their classrooms trying to judge how well they do their jobs. That's why they view STAR as a farce, and Crist could help bridge the divide by calling for a cease-fire. STAR is a bureaucratic mess with a $147-million price tag, and it needs to be fixed before teachers will view it as rewarding.