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Legislators tweak teacher bonuses

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published March 7, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Under mounting pressure from teachers and education groups, House and Senate leaders are moving to open up a year-old teacher bonus program to more instructors and give school districts more flexibility in how they assess instructors.

A House committee Tuesday approved a bill that would award the $147.5-million in Special Teachers Are Rewarded, also known as STAR, bonuses to all instructors within a school district whose students show academic improvement over the course of the school year.

Under the current program, only the "top 25 percent" of a district's instructors qualify for the bonuses - equal to 5 percent of their pay this year.

The bill approved Tuesday by a House education committee would not base the bonuses on a teacher's pay. Instead, a district would divide its share of the state performance money by the number of teachers who qualify, while limiting the bonuses to $10,000 per teacher.

"If everyone performs, everyone gets the bonus," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, the committee chairman. "If only 20 percent meet the standards, they'll share the money."

STAR is the biggest and most far-reaching plan of its kind in the country.

Gov. Charlie Crist's budget for next year doubles the program to nearly $300-million.

Supporters say STAR rewards the best teachers and will push fellow teachers and students to work harder. Critics, including many teachers, say the program was rolled out too fast, that districts haven't had time to develop proper measurements of student performance - especially for subjects not covered by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The Pinellas County and Pasco County school boards recently rejected their share of STAR money rather than participate.

The House bill gives school districts more flexibility to measure performance, allowing them to use national, state or locally developed tests - including performance- and skill-based tests for subjects like music or art.

A Senate bill to be considered today in committee would allow districts to reward bonuses of "at least 5 percent" of salary, and they could be doled out to between 20 percent and 80 percent of a district's instructors.

"They're getting closer" to what the Florida Education Association supports, said union president Andy Ford. But like some lawmakers, the union would rather the millions set aside for STAR be spent on salary increases.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, voted against the bill.

"I cannot support this bill without an across-the-board pay increase."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.