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Four Sarasota-based challenges could reform Florida teacher bonus program

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Four challenges launched in Sarasota could have statewide implications on the controversial “Best & Brightest” teacher bonus program. The cases could change the way the program evaluates who gets a bonus and expand the pool of teachers eligible.

The challenges are especially relevant this week as lawmakers Monday night included $49 million as an add-on item to its budget. That’s $5 million more than was funded last year and $4 million more than was asked for by the Florida House. The Senate is supporting the funding despite having never discussed it.

Under the current program first funded last year, teachers who were in the top 20th percentile of students SAT and ACT test scores were eligible to receive the bonus. In its first year only 5,200 teachers received a bonus under the program. There are more than 172,000 teachers in eligible schools.

“There certainly may be other teachers, maybe lots of others, in the same situation as these from Sarasota,” said Lynn Hearn, an attorney representing the challengers. “We believe the Florida Department of Education has usurped the authority of local school districts, forced them to apply the law more narrowly than it was written, and in the end significantly limited the pool of eligible teachers.”

Those challengers include Jennifer Stringer. The Florida Department of Education granted her an $8,200 bonus last month without explanation. Stringer originally did not receive a bonus because the state used her 2013-2014 test rankings rather than the most recent rankings available.

According to the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association it’s unknown how many other teachers were in that same boat.

“No one should be fooled into thinking this is a teacher-friendly program,” Hearn said.

Another challenger, David Oness, appealed his state percentile ranking, but not his national ranking. The point of his challenge is to compare test performance within the state and not the entire nation. Oness’ case was heard last month. A ruling is expected in April.

Two other challenges by Diane Andrew and Cordelia Brown are related. The two educators serve as occupational and speech language therapists. As such, they are not currently eligible for the bonus. The two are asking that such therapists be included in the pool of educators considered for the bonus because the work with classroom teachers to educate students in the classroom.

Rulings in those two cases are expected sometime in the next few months.

“Not only was this law so poorly thought out that its gaps were easily challenged, but it also has not and will never, result in higher student achievement,” said Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association.

The challenges were initially filed with the Sarasota County School District because local districts are charged with administering the Best & Brightest program. However, the Florida Department of Education is defending the district because it agrees with the ruling that the challengers were not eligible for the a bonus.

The Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association has been opposed to the program since its inception. Dissent also comes from many Democrats and some Republicans.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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