Bay County School Board Chair Ginger Littleton had spent most of Monday and Tuesday this week with the district’s lead teacher recruiter, Sharon Michalik, talking with students in FSU’s studio physics classes about teaching careers. Those visits had gone well. Nothing went wrong on the trip to Tallahassee until Ginger tried to talk to the Florida Senate’s PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee about the Senate’s bill for modifying the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, which would undermine recruiting of strong teachers in subjects like chemistry, physics and upper level math. The subcommittee’s chair, Dana Young, cut Ginger off almost as soon as the words “physics teachers” made it out of her mouth because the committee had backed itself into a scheduling corner by inserting its response to the House Schools of Hope proposal into its Best and Brightest bill.
The students Ginger and Sharon visited at FSU were not students in the university’s “traditional” teacher preparation program, called FSU-Teach. The state’s traditional teacher preparation pipeline isn’t even coming close to meeting the demand for teachers in biology, chemistry, physics and upper level math. So Bay County (like many other Florida districts) recruits individuals from outside that pipeline – new college graduates with degrees in fields like physics, retiring or career-changing engineers, and even retired military personnel (because Bay County is home to a large Navy research lab and Tyndall Air Force Base).
In fact, Ginger and Sharon had dinner with four FSU physics students on Monday evening to talk about teaching careers, and the subject of the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program came up. After all, the undergraduates in the dinner group – all of whom easily exceeded the 80th percentile ACT or SAT score required for Best and Brightest eligibility – can expect starting salaries of at least $50,000 once they complete their bachelors’ degrees (and the graduate student who attended is likely to start at $100,000). The starting teacher salary in the Bay District Schools is presently $34,500, and even the remarkable $5,000 “signing bonus” that the district’s teacher union agreed to – and several other financial incentives Sharon Michalik described to the students she met during her visit – can’t close the salary gap.
During the last two years, the Best and Brightest program has provided signing bonuses of about $7,000 or $8,000 to new teachers who looked a lot like those students that Ginger and Sharon had dinner with on Monday.
But if the language in the Senate’s Best and Brightest bill, SB 1552, makes it into law, those physics students that dined with Ginger and Sharon will no longer be eligible. The reason? The bill would restrict signing bonuses to students who graduate from Florida’s traditional teacher education programs. The language would also keep career-changing engineers or retiring military personnel from receiving the signing bonuses. For a state that built its teaching corps with the help of some of the nation’s most progressive alternative certification policies, this is inexplicable.
With the Senate’s Schools of Hope response now wedged into the chamber’s Best and Brightest bill, it’s quite possible that Senators will refuse to discuss any further the STEM teacher recruiting issue that Ginger tried to raise. We will know soon if the conversation that Senator Young promised to have with Ginger “after the meeting” will happen. It hasn’t yet.