Teachers wary on pay plan

Educators and unions take a closer look at details, some of which may be surprising.

By Ron Matus
Published May 14, 2007

Gov. Charlie Crist and Florida lawmakers got glowing reviews in March when they scrapped the state's former performance-pay plan for teachers. But it remains to be seen whether the new plan will get a warmer reception once teachers consider the fine print.

Already, there is grumbling.

Contrary to a wave of misleading newspaper reports, the new plan continues to put a large emphasis on standardized tests, including the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, to determine who the best teachers are.

And because the Legislature did not increase funding for performance pay, some observers are skeptical that the new plan will result in more teachers getting bonuses.

"How are we going to increase the number of teachers getting bonuses if we don't have the money?" asked Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, one of 40 senators who voted unanimously for the new plan before the funding was clear. "If I'm sounding angry right now, I am."

Said Pinellas teachers union chief Jade Moore: "You have basically exchanged a dirty rag for an unclean sock."

The former plan, Special Teachers Are Rewarded, or STAR, was backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and rushed through the 2006 legislative session. It mandated that the top 25 percent of teachers in each district get bonuses of at least 5 percent, based on a combination of factors including standardized testing and personnel evaluations.

Supporters all along the political spectrum believe performance pay for teachers, if done right, can drive teachers to work harder and/or smarter, keep the best ones from leaving the profession and, in the process, boost student achievement.

But in Florida, teachers revolted. Their biggest concerns: that STAR put too much stock in standardized testing. And that capping the reward at 25 percent of teachers would pit teachers against each other.

So then came the new plan, the Merit Award Program, or MAP. Lawmakers passed it and Crist signed it after education committees took testimony from teachers, administrators and union officials. In his State of the State address, Crist promised a new performance pay plan that "will not be based on a test alone."

MAP is not based on a test alone. But neither was STAR.

The legislation behind STAR required standardized tests to be the primary factor, and the Department of Education interpreted that to mean at least 50 percent. Some districts chose to go far beyond that minimal percentage, but most did not.

MAP, on the other hand, mandates that standardized tests be 60 percent of the formula.

Crist still claimed victory. A photograph in the St. Petersburg Times on May 6 shows a note handwritten by Crist and listing his priorities for the session. The third item listed under "BIG ISSUES" is "Teacher Pay (NOT TEST)." Crist put a check mark next to it.

His spokeswoman, Vivian Myrtetus, characterized the change in bonus plans as a pre-emptive strike - one that would prevent districts from putting more emphasis on standardized testing in the future.

Because the STAR formula was open-ended, "there's no saying what could have happened" a few years down the road, she said.

Standardized testing aside, there are key differences between MAP and STAR.

MAP allows teams of teachers to get bonuses, instead of just individuals. It allows districts to consider student test scores in different ways. And it gives districts more time to develop alternative tests, such as end-of-course exams, for art, music and other teachers whose subjects aren't measured by the FCAT or some other commonly used standardized test.

MAP also scales back the Department of Education's role in shaping district plans. Critics accused the department of being heavy-handed with STAR.

"The difference is mainly in that there is a lot more autonomy that the districts and local unions have in determining what their plans look like, " said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers union.

Pudlow said union officials are not happy with MAP's reliance on standardized tests, but at the time, it was the better option.

"We were facing a huge amount of chaos, " he said. With MAP, "We had a chance to step back."

Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, said the difference was more in style than substance. Lawmakers asked teacher reps to participate in the process, and Crist, a Republican, complimented teachers at every turn. The day before the session began, he even attended a dedication ceremony at teachers union headquarters - a move that may have made pigs fly in the Bush era.

"When stakeholders are involved, they feel a lot better about the product ... even when the products aren't that different, " said Traviesa, vice chairman of the House Education Council.

Whether teachers are truly comfortable with MAP will play out in coming months, as districts and unions hammer out new plans. The plans must be submitted to the education commissioner by Oct. 1.

In the meantime, questions remain about how far the MAP money will go.

Unlike STAR, MAP does not cap the number of teachers who get bonuses. That number is left up to districts.

But there may be an unofficial cap given the amount of money in the MAP pot. Crist wanted $295-million for performance pay, but lawmakers ultimately gave MAP $147.5-million - the same amount they doled out last year for STAR.

Bullard said she held her nose to vote for MAP, because she thought more funding was coming, meaning more teachers would get bonus money than they would have under STAR. Now she's not sure.

"I'm concerned, " she said. "I do not want the public or the teachers to think they're getting something when in fact they may not be."

Crist's office says given this year's funding, the percentage of teachers getting bonuses under MAP will probably be on par with the 25 percent under STAR.

In Hillsborough, union officials estimate 30 to 50 percent of Hillsborough teachers will get MAP bonuses this year.

Hillsborough decided to stick with 5 percent bonuses, even though MAP allows districts to go as high as 10 percent. The individual payout will be about $2, 000.

MAP is far from perfect, but "people view this as more fair and more open" than STAR, said Hillsborough teachers union president Jean Clements.

The union will know soon whether rank-and-file teachers agree. Ratification ballots for the new plan were mailed to 14, 000 teachers Wednesday. They're due by May 21.

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