How a terrible idea achieves eternal life: Florida’s ACT/SAT-based Best and Brightest scholarships

Last year, Florida spent $70 million paying bonuses of about $7,000 each to more than 9,000 teachers in part because those teachers had earned scores in the 80th percentile or higher when they took either the ACT or SAT college placement exam.  Nearly all of those teachers had posted those test scores before they entered college – and for some teachers that was decades ago.  It seemed to many members of the K-12 community (and even some of those outside of it like me) to be a terrible idea when it was implemented in 2015 with the name “Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program”.  (Florida has since added a component to the Best and Brightest program that relies only on teacher evaluations and not on ACT/SAT scores)  Lawsuits were filed and morale was damaged.

However, behind this idea there was a rationale – attracting more talented young people into the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, these ACT/SAT-based bonuses have failed as a recruiting tool.  Teacher shortages have intensified.  If the bonus program was going to work at all, it would have increased the supply of high school math teachers.  It has clearly failed at that – the number of aspiring math teachers taking the state’s high school math teacher certification exam for the first time has dropped 16% since the ACT/SAT-based bonuses were implemented.  The corresponding numbers for most science certification tests have dropped as well.

But the noise surrounding the ACT/SAT-based bonus program has subsided.  When I published an op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat recently arguing that the $70 million per year (more than $20 per Florida K-12 student) being spent on the program should be redirected to the state’s base K-12 funding account, I received only one response – from a teacher who complained that I should save my keystrokes for a topic more to his liking.

Nor did I hear from our local budget hawks, Florida TaxWatch’s Dominic Calabro and the James Madison Institute’s Bob McClure.  I live in Tallahassee and I know these guys.  I’ve seen one of them in person since the Democrat piece appeared.  All I’ve gotten is crickets.

I’ve arrived at the head-shaking conclusion that the ACT/SAT-based bonus program is here to stay – it will last as long as Florida does (that is to say, eternally).  Despite the fact that it is an expensive and failed program, it represents a Brilliant Republican Idea (thank goodness I am not a Brilliant Republican – just a Dumb Republican).  So the Republican leadership wants to preserve it.

On the other hand, nobody in the K-12 system has the stomach to argue that the teachers who are presently receiving the bonuses that they earned because of tests they took maybe decades ago should now be deprived of them.

Meanwhile, Florida’s shortage of math and science teachers continues to intensify.  It seems fair to say, to mangle a well-known phrase, that everybody talks about the math and science teacher shortage, but nobody (with a few exceptions) does anything about it.

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