Florida Merit Pay Program Under Fire

Published April 1, 2007

If the opposing parties in a lawsuit filed last December against Florida’s Special Teachers Are Rewarded (STAR) program can agree on anything, it’s that changes need to be made for Florida to have a successful performance-based pay program.

In its lawsuit, the Florida Education Association (FEA) claims STAR is unconstitutional and the Department of Education did not follow proper rule-making procedures in its creation.

“The STAR proviso violates the Florida Constitution in that it violates the single-subject requirement forbidding the enactment of substantive law through appropriations,” said FEA General Counsel Pam Cooper.

The Florida attorney general’s office declined comment.

Performance Bonuses

Currently, the STAR Plan, created in spring 2006, awards the top 25 percent of public school teachers in Florida an annual bonus equivalent to 5 percent of their base pay. The state currently has $147.5 million allocated for this effort, which will be divided among the participating school districts.

At its inception, STAR mandated that each of Florida’s 67 school districts submit a plan to the State Board of Education by December 31, 2006, showing how they intend to evaluate teachers’ performance. To date, approximately 20 percent of the plans submitted have been approved.

State Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), chair of the Committee on Education PreK-12 and former superintendent of Okaloosa County schools, believes a successful performance pay program must be understood by those it affects, and it must achieve some level of buy-in from those it is meant to encourage and reward.

“I think it’s fair to say that both Republicans and Democrats on the committee are concerned that the STAR system is not being successfully implemented,” Gaetz said. “I can say that my take is that House leadership is strongly in favor of performance pay, but is not married to the specifics of the STAR system, or any other particular scheme.”

Better Results

Gaetz said performance pay programs will deliver more compensation to Florida’s teachers and reward the best ones, motivating colleagues to achieve greater results with their students.

“Students that turn around tough situations and make great gains are rewarded in our system through scholarships–why not their teachers?” Gaetz asked. “I think that rewarding high performers builds better results in the long term.”

A study on merit pay by the University of Arkansas, released in January, showed in the five schools studied that merit pay programs resulted in better student achievement. (See “Merit Pay for Teachers Improves Student Achievement in Arkansas,” page 10.)

Having served as superintendent of Okaloosa County schools for six years, Gaetz understands what motivates and encourages teachers. “People who don’t think teachers want to compete for money need to come to Okaloosa County and some of the other high-performing counties in the state, and observe how teachers participate very vigorously in ensuring that A-plus performance money that gets into teachers’ pockets is well deserved,” Gaetz said.

Proven Approach

Participants in the University of Arkansas study said schools using merit pay programs provided more positive work atmospheres than those without such incentives. The study also showed teachers were no more likely to report counterproductive competition among faculty–a fear some STAR critics have raised.

Kathleen Shanahan, a member of the Florida State Board of Education, is a strong advocate for performance pay, and she believes it is a proven compensation approach.

“I think that we should be able to figure out a way to keep, retain, and attract the best teachers to the state of Florida, and I think that pay for performance provides us with a strong [arrow] in our [quiver] as we try to bring people to Florida,” Shanahan said.

Jillian Metz ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.