(Photo: Stock.xchng.)

By Mc Nelly Torres
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Merit pay for Florida’s public school teachers is in place after two years of protests.

In 2010, former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a proposed merit pay measure during his Senate campaign in response to widespread protests from teachers and supporters.

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But in March, Gov. Rick Scott signed a similar bill into law that links teacher pay to classroom performance. The new law will establish a statewide teacher evaluation and merit pay system by 2014, do away with tenure for new teachers hired after July 1, 2011, and the use of long-term contracts. It also eliminates teachers’ due process and collective bargaining rights.

But Florida teachers are not backing away.

In September, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit against the state contending that the law is unconstitutional because it substantially changes how teachers are paid and evaluated while denying instructors their right to collective bargaining, the Associated Press reported at the time.

Regardless of what’s happening at the state level, performance pay for teachers has been part of the Obama administration’s ambitious education reform agenda. And this became clear as the administration launched the $4.5 billion Race to the Top grant program two years ago, which required states to come up with new ways to grade teachers and tie student performance to paychecks. Florida won the competition in the second round, securing about $700 million in federal money.

In fact, the Sunshine State leads the nation in instituting merit pay. Florida is among 25 states using student scores on standardized exams as the foundation to evaluate teachers and set pay — and it is the only state requiring merit pay statewide.

“Florida has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the merit pay issues,” Michelle Exstrom, education program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the AP. “And I think a lot of states have looked at Florida’s struggles and said, ‘You know what, it’s not clear cut how to make this work.’ ”

Though merit pay has been debated for years, evaluating teachers is not an easy task and no one has come up with a fair formula to measure teacher performance.

The state’s new formula, criticized for its complexity, will initially measure teacher performance using Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores, with plans to use other tests in the future. It would rate teachers on four performance levels, from unsatisfactory to highly effective. Student test scores would account for 50 percent of the evaluation, regardless of student growth and an in-person evaluation for the other half. Top-performing teachers can get permanent salary increases while those rating near the bottom for two consecutive years can be let go.

The system doesn’t take into account students’ race, gender and socioeconomic status — despite evidence that such factors are linked to student achievement.

And as Florida faces more budget cuts that will likely affect public education, it’s unclear how the state will pay higher salaries to teachers who perform well.

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