Union challenges ‘Best and Brightest’ teacher bonuses

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

The Florida Education Association teachers union has filed a potential class-action lawsuit alleging that the state’s controversial “Best and Brightest” bonus program discriminates against older teachers and minorities.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Tallahassee, names as defendants the Florida Department of Education and school boards throughout the state.

Lawmakers approved the Best and Brightest program in 2015 to provide bonuses to teachers. But the program has been controversial, in part, because it uses teacher performances on SAT and ACT college-entrance exams — in some cases, exams that teachers took decades ago — to help determine eligibility for the bonuses.

The lawsuit, which also includes seven individual teachers as plaintiffs, alleges that the Best and Brightest program violates state and federal civil-rights laws because of the use of the SAT and ACT scores.“The SAT/ACT score requirement has an illegal disparate impact on teachers based on their age and on teachers based on their black and Hispanic race,” the 58-page lawsuit said. “The SAT/ACT score requirement is not required by business necessity and is not related to job performance.”

The lawsuit, which seeks certification as a class action, asks for damages and an injunction preventing the state and school boards from engaging in the alleged “illegal actions.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said Thursday the agency does not comment on litigation.

During the 2015-2016 school year, 5,334 teachers received the bonuses, with each getting $8,248, according to a House analysis in May. In 2015-2016, 7,188 teachers received $6,816 each. Lawmakers earmarked about $44 million for the program in 2015-2016 and $49 million in 2016-2017.

The lawsuit alleges, however, that during the 2015-2016 year, less than 1 percent of the bonus recipients were black teachers, while about 4 percent were Hispanic. It also detailed statistics indicating disparate effects of the SAT or ACT requirement on older teachers who otherwise had been rated as “highly effective.”

Though lawmakers made some revisions this year, eligibility criteria during the program’s first two years required teachers to show they had been rated “highly effective” during their annual evaluations and that they had scored at or above the 80th percentile when they took the SAT or ACT. First-year teachers, who had not gone through annual evaluations, could qualify based on their SAT or ACT scores.

The lawsuit said the Florida Education Association represents thousands of classroom teachers “who are over 40 years of age, who are black and/or Hispanic, who have been rated highly (effective), who were not first year teachers … and who applied for the bonus under the program and were denied and did not receive the bonus because they could not satisfy the SAT/ACT requirement, or who would have applied for but were deterred from applying because it would have been a futile act because they could not satisfy the SAT/ACT requirement.”

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