Replace Best and Brightest with a grant program: Let Florida’s school districts be laboratories for innovation

Florida’s Best and Brightest teacher bonus program is intended to be a way to achieve statewide policy objectives – including implementing performance-based compensation of educators and recruiting more talented individuals into teaching – while circumventing the district-level collective bargaining process. The loss of local control and the selection of one narrow measurement (college entrance exam scores) to identify talented recruits have helped to drive the controversy about the program.

The loss of local control is particularly troubling – and should be for Republican legislators. The Best and Brightest program is obviously experimental and has only weak support in research on teacher effectiveness. In the program’s two-year history, there has been little overlap between the group of teachers that have received Best and Brightest bonuses and those recognized as most effective by the Florida Department of Education (the “High Impact Teacher Corps”). In addition, few district Teachers of the Year have won Best and Brightest bonuses. Teachers who have won Best and Brightest bonuses teach disproportionately in schools with affluent students – and not in schools with the economically disadvantaged students who need them most.

Is there a better way to meet the policy objectives that the Best and Brightest program was intended to address? Perhaps. How would we come up with a better idea?

Republicans (like me) are fond of devolving programs from the federal level to the state level, saying that states are the laboratories of democracy. Perhaps Florida’s state-level policy-makers should take the same approach, allowing the state’s school districts to operate as laboratories for recruiting a greater number of talented individuals into teaching and rewarding teachers for classroom performance.

Of course, this would probably not be as simple as taking whatever sum of money was going to be invested in the Best and Brightest program (it was $49 million in the present fiscal year), dividing it up using some algorithm and sending it to the districts. If the state did this, the money would likely get spent in a way that had little or nothing to do with the state’s policy objectives.

But how can we engage the experience and expertise latent in our schools and districts to address the state’s policy objectives? Perhaps a competitive grant program would do the trick.

Imagine this: The Legislature appropriates $50 million to a grant program that is intended to recruit strong teachers – perhaps primarily targeting high needs schools and critical needs subjects, as the State Board of Education recommended last year. And then it asks the districts to write innovative proposals for meeting these objectives. Such an exercise would engage all 67 school districts. With such a broad base of expertise and experience addressing the issue, it’s likely several (or maybe many) terrific ideas would result. Even the district teachers’ unions would get involved, because at least some of their members could benefit if a district’s proposal were funded.

Perhaps half a dozen or a dozen school districts would have their proposals funded, and then the real experiment would begin. Which projects actually result in the district having more success in recruiting more strong individuals into teaching? Which projects result in better student achievement? And which of these projects could be replicated in other districts? Maybe a successful project in a rural district could be ported to other rural districts. Or a successful program in one of the state’s megadistricts could be replicated in other megadistricts.

Are districts – being tightly tethered to local teachers’ unions – even capable of setting priorities like those the State Board of Education set out? Yes. Bay County is giving substantial signing bonuses ($5,000) to new teachers in some math, science and special education fields (as well as Latin). Pinellas County is trying salary supplements for high needs schools. Some districts – and their teachers’ unions – are willing to spend substantial amounts of their own money to experiment.

But the bottom line is that it is much more likely for good ideas to bubble up from Florida’s school districts than it is for a few legislators, staffers and bureaucrats to come up with the best answer in Tallahassee. The Legislature should take advantage of all of the innovation horsepower available at the local level by abandoning its Best and Brightest plans and instead initiating a grant program for the districts.

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