TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Department of Education is not commenting on a federal agency’s continued interest in a teacher salary bonus program, which is the object of a claim filed by a union representing teachers across the state.

“Our comment would have to be that we’re unable to comment since it’s an ongoing litigation,” Cheryl Etters, deputy director of communications for the Florida Department of Education, told the Florida Record.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission continues to look into the Best and Brightest Scholarship program, a program created by state legislation that has raised questions from the Florida Education Association and others.

Hershel Lyons, the Florida Department of Education’s chancellor of public schools, on Friday issued a memorandum to all school district superintendents in the state discussing how they're to approach the program and its guidelines for this academic year, Etters said.

Created by legislation in 2005, the bonus program aims to reward teachers with a one-time bonus of up to $8,200, an amount that is to be pro-rated if the number of teachers eligible exceeds the total appropriation, she said. The appropriation, passed by the legislature, of $44,022,483 in 2015 increased to $49 million for 2016.

The person applying for the scholarship must be a classroom teacher as defined by the state legislature who is employed by a Florida school district, charter school or the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. The teacher’s official record also must show his or her composite score on either the ACT or SAT was at or above the 80th percentile based on the national rank in effect when the assessment was taken, and the teacher must have been newly hired and not have been evaluated under the program or have been evaluated as “highly effective” for the school year preceding the year in which the scholarship is to be awarded.

Lyons’ memorandum states: “The legislature did not give rulemaking authority to the Department of Education (department), and the department has no authority to supervise or review the eligibility determinations made by the district school boards.” The memo adds in bold type: “Each district school board should review the statute, and make its own decision regarding eligibility questions.”

Each district is to determine which of its teachers are eligible “given the criteria that’s in the law,” Etters said.

The Florida Education Association in December filed a complaint with the EEOC, contending the Best and Brightest program is discriminatory against older teachers because no percentile data is available from ACT or SAT for teachers who took the tests before 1972, and against blacks and Hispanics because the courts, the FEA states, have determined that the ACT and SAT are culturally and racially biased.

Terms of what constitutes a teacher included in the original legislation creating the bonus program also have been questioned, as in June, a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings judge ruled that a Sarasota County speech therapist fit the description of a schoolteacher as written in the original legislation creating the bonus program.

The program continues with a “few modifications, not anything of major substance,” Etters said.

Of whether the state education department is tracking the impact of the bonus program created by lawmakers, she said: “The program really doesn’t lay out that kind of parameters. It’s meant to reward teachers who have those high test scores.”

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