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Senate On Education: Teacher Merit Pay And University Boosts, But No Digital Ed?

The Senate has allocated a $1.1 billion increase for education funding and the chamber’s education committee has now presented an outline for how that money will be spent.

At the top of the Senate Education funding plan is $480 million  to fund pay raises for teachers. That’s the same amount of money requested by Governor Rick Scott, who has been pushing for across the board pay hikes for educators. But the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairman says the senate is going in a slightly different direction:

“We’re having the districts base the awards on student achievement and when they determine how to distribute, that a plan be submitted to the Department in August of this year," said committee Chairman Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton).

Galvano says in addition to letting school districts decide how the money gets spent, other school employees could also get pay raises too. And Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) says he also believes in a merit-based approach for teacher raises.

“My hope is that teacher pay raises will be tied to student achievement and performance as much as possible. I don’t believe in across the board raises that take the place of performance raises," he said.

The House is also setting aside dollars for teacher pay raises but hasn't specified a dollar amount. In a statement, House Speaker Will Weatherford said, "Florida’s Constitution does not allow the Legislature or the Governor to set individual teacher salaries. The House remains consistent that when we begin the conversation about teacher pay, we should also include discussion on the importance of merit pay. Our students deserve high quality teachers.”

The state board of education has also voiced opposition to across-the-board pay raises, but a recent poll shows nearly 75 percent of Floridians are in favor of pay hikes for educators. 

The Senate is also seeking to restore $300 million dollars to Florida’s public universities which was taken from the schools last year. Lawmakers promised to give that money back. The Senate is also throwing in another $114 million, a bit less than what the schools wanted in exchange for not raising tuition.

But one area the chamber has fallen flat is in digital education.

Florida has set a goal that by 2016 all public schools will have digital education programs. But that means financing new tools like kindles, iPads, tablets, smartboards—and making sure schools are wired enough to support the digital platform. The Department of Education says the state needs about $440 million  to fund the initiative this year. But the Senate has only allocated $76 million. And that has Republican Senator David Simmons of Maitland concerned:

“I’ve always questioned that timeline that we went ahead and put in knowing that it is going to be exceedingly difficult to do.”   

The Senate’s spending plan only addresses internet access, while the Department’s proposal includes money to purchase new devices. Galvano says it’s still early though, and that funding levels could change.

Meanwhile a $375,000  line item for one school is also catching lawmakers’ eyes. That start-up money would go to a boarding school in Miami-Dade that serves at-risk students. But Republican Senator Nancy Detert says the state should be careful with how it funds the program:

“It’s still multi-million dollars for very few students and I’d like us to keep a watch on that,' Detert said.

The SEED school is a charter school that was created in 2011 it when it was placed into another bill in a last-minute maneuver near the end of session. The law creating the SEED school calls for several state agencies to come up with plans to fund it.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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