Florida's statewide teachers union Thursday discouraged local affiliates from endorsing the state's application for up to $700 million in federal stimulus grant money that would require the adoption of merit pay plans.
Florida Education Association President Andy Ford called the proposal "fatally flawed" in an open letter to Education Commissioner Eric Smith that was published as an advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.
Smith's plan would require school districts and their teachers unions to adopt local merit pay plans based at least 50 percent on how each teacher's students do on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test _ FCAT _ or other exams as a condition for receiving grant money.
Ford's letter does not specifically mention the merit pay requirement but calls the application for a Race to the Top grant "prescriptive, topdown and unreasonable." It also fails to focus on struggling schools as envisioned by the Obama Administration but allocates money to all schools in participating districts, Ford wrote.
"We sure hope the Department of Education listens to the teachers and the school employees on this and adjusts its guidelines," said union spokesman Mark Pudlow.
Smith responded in a letter to Ford, writing he was disappointed in the union's position and that the proposal was created in partnership with stakeholders including teachers unions.
"Florida's students, families and teachers are well-deserving of these grant dollars, especially in light of current economic challenges, and it is my home that we can continue to pursue this opportunity through open and honest dialogue," Smith wrote.
Florida School Boards Association executive director Wayne Blanton said the union's criticism was premature and his organization was encouraging school districts to endorse the application.
If the grant is approved in April, then districts would have 90 days to reach agreements with their local unions on merit pay plans or else lose out on the stimulus dollars.
"It's a cultural change," Blanton acknowledged. "It's going to be a hard, hard 90 days of negotiation."
The use of student test scores to award bonuses or merit pay has long been a contentious issue.
Teachers unions have traditionally opposed merit pay and so have most Democratic politicians. Democratic President Barack Obama, though, has broken that mold by embracing the concept. That may bode well for Florida's Race to the Top application.
Merit pay supporters, including most Republican politicians, say it rewards the best teachers and encourages them to stay in the classroom.
The Florida Education Association has argued the state's teachers are underpaid compared to other states and that salaries should be raised across-the-board before merit pay is considered. Teachers also distrust test results and say such a plan would destroy teamwork vital to student achievement.
Merit pay plans devised by the state Board of Education and Legislature have been met with resistance by teachers and school districts. Only eight of Florida's 67 districts this year are participating in the current Merit Awards Program.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush made merit pay a key part of his education policy and he's continuing to push for it through his Foundation for Florida's Future.
The foundation's executive director, Patricia Levesque, accused union officials of playing politics with the Race to the Top proposal.
"Their opposition could jeopardize approval of $700 million for the plan at a time when Florida is facing yet another tough budget year," Levesque said in a statement.