The state's largest teachers union filed a complaint Monday over a program that rewards teachers for high scores on college admissions tests, saying the "Best and Brightest" bonuses discriminate on the basis of age and race.
The charges, filed by the Florida Education Association with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations, come weeks before lawmakers are set to consider extending the bonus program, which was added to the state budget during a June special session.
"Too many high-quality teachers in Florida were denied access to this bonus program because of the unfair and discriminatory rules and short timeline set up by lawmakers," union President Joanne McCall said in a statement announcing the challenge. "This bonus plan wasn't thought out very well and wasn't properly vetted in the Legislature and that has resulted in many good teachers unfairly denied access to this bonus."
The "Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program" gives annual bonuses of up to $10,000 to teachers who are highly rated and have SAT or ACT scores that rank in the top fifth of test results. Lawmakers set aside $44 million for the program this year, but the spending plan only made it temporary.
During its regular session beginning next month, the Legislature is set to consider bills that would extend the program.
Until now, critics have mostly knocked the program for misusing SAT or ACT scores, which are generally used for college applications. But Monday's complaint goes beyond that, saying that the way the award is structured precludes older teachers from getting the bonuses, gives an unfair advantage to younger teachers and discriminates against African-Americans and Latinos.
For example, the union said there is no "percentile data," used to determine the top fifth of test takers, for SATs or ACTs taken before 1972. The association also claims that "teachers older than 40 years old" had trouble getting the required information about their test scores before an Oct. 1 deadline.
The program also exempts first-year teachers from the requirement that recipients be rated "highly effective," something the union says is an unfair advantage.
Meanwhile, critics of the SAT and ACT have long complained that the tests are biased against African-Americans and Latinos.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, which was targeted in the charges along with the state's school districts, said in an emailed statement that the agency hasn't received the complaint the union "alleges it filed" against the program.
"The department has no comment other than to state that, as always, the department will cooperate fully with any required regulatory process or review," spokeswoman Meghan Collins said.
Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami), who has pushed the Best and Brightest program, blasted the union's complaint in a text message. Fresen, who chairs the House committee that oversees education funding, said more than 5,000 teachers qualified for the award this year.
"It is unfortunate that the teachers' unions constantly oppose any payment structure effort that is not based on time served," Fresen wrote. "It's akin to the infantile argument of 'if I can't have any neither can you.'"
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