Teachers find bonus pay not a matter of degree
While studying for his master’s degree in space sciences at Florida Tech, Scott Johnson used computer simulations to model what pulsating star binaries might look like. They’d never been seen before with a telescope. He built complicated geometric equations for his astrophysics master’s project to calculate how much one star might dim when eclipsed by another. After graduation, Johnson decided to put his education to use as a teacher at Palm Bay High. But because his master’s degree wasn’t in math, the subject he taught this past year, under a new state law he didn’t qualify for the $2,625 bonus pay teachers can receive for having that higher degree. “It’s applied math,” Johnson said of studying astrophysics. “All of physics is. I use math as a second language, and I’m fluent in it.” The controversial Student Success Act of 2011 limits which advanced degrees new teachers may be compensated for. Brevard Public Schools has interpreted the law to mean degrees must match up with teaching certificates for all new teachers. Previously, teachers received a supplement just for having an advanced degree, regardless of the subject. The change has 25-year-old Johnson fuming. And he’s not alone: More than a third of 141 new teachers hired by Brevard Public Schools this past year did not qualify for the stipend, which can go as high as $5,200 for a doctorate. Teachers already employed by the district were not affected. “We’ve had to be pretty strict in our interpretation,” said Debra Pace, Brevard’s associate superintendent for human resources. “We want to be consistent with other districts, we want to be consistent with what the state wants us to do, but right now, we don’t have very specific guidelines.” After Florida Today questioned Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the co-authors of the controversial law, about cases such as Johnson’s, Gaetz acknowledged some changes might be needed. He said he would revisit the overlapping STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math. “I think you raised a very valid point,” Gaetz said. “We can’t and won’t water down the Student Success Act, but we could enhance the act to value the STEM areas. ... There are so many STEM discipline areas that do overlap. There could be an opportunity to improve how we reward those teachers.” Richard Smith, president of Brevard’s teachers union, said that it’s not just STEM subjects that overlap. An advanced degree in history, for example, could give deeper context and meaning when teaching about literature. In addition, new teachers who earned master’s degrees in areas such as curriculum and instruction did not qualify for a stipend since no certification in those areas exists. “The idea that everything is completely separate from everything else is just crazy,” Smith said of the new law. “It’s a cheap effort to try and cut and cut and cut.” More than 2,200 of Brevard’s teachers — 43 percent — have advanced degrees. Gaetz said that the Student Success Act was designed to provide teachers with incentives to focus on student results, including not paying teachers for advanced degrees that don’t directly help students learn. “I think it’s a fallacy that there’s a relationship between how many degrees a teacher has and how effective they are in the classroom,” Gaetz said. “Rewarding additional degrees earned in isolation is like rewarding process, instead of rewarding results. The Student Success Act rewards results.” In addition, the act ends tenure for new teacher hires and ties parts of a teacher’s evaluation to student test scores.
Pinellas, Hernando may vote on FCAT resolutions
As the stakes keep increasing in Florida's standardized testing system, teachers have protested and parents have complained about anxious students more fearful than ever of failing. Now, some school leaders across the state are part of the growing backlash. In yet another signal of the broadening distaste for using the FCAT as a do-or-die measure, two Tampa Bay school districts -- Pinellas and Hernando -- are considering resolutions urging the state to place less emphasis on the controversial test required for graduation. Already, at least three other school districts have taken a stand on the issue, and a handful of others are considering similar measures. "I think the FCAT puts too much pressure on all the children," said Cynthia Moore, chairwoman of the Hernando County School Board. "We have children doing FCAT, throwing up in the morning because they are so upset about it."
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State must feed the “beast,” not starve it
Florida needs money. Florida needs money for schools, universities and transportation projects, which power investment and jobs. With Tallahassee supposedly focused on remaking Florida's economy, the power elite should consider these costs investments, not expenses. In fact, the attitude has been just the opposite, or worse. Twelve days ago, The Post ran a story by John Kennedy headlined "Fading tax base stifles state." The main point was not new: Florida wants to pay for a futuristic economy with an antiquated tax base. Business groups have made the same point for 20 years. Yet Tallahassee still doesn't understand. Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, channeled his inner Grover Norquist when he said of new revenue, "I don't want to feed the beast at all." Norquist is a lobbyist who bullies congressional Republicans into signing a supposed "no-tax pledge," to starve the "beast" that is government. Weatherford said he didn't mean to imply that Florida should have a government the size of Delaware's, just that "I'm not looking to gain more revenue" through more taxes. "I want to raise more (money) by growing the state." It's such an appealing philosophy: As Florida's economy grows, so will tax revenue. The problem is that it can't happen. Florida's system of raising money for state services is mostly unchanged since Florida tourism was bathing beauties on water skis at Cypress Gardens. To pay for education, health care, public safety and environmental protection, Florida still relies on a sales tax levied on in-store sales, not online purchases. Under current projections, Kennedy reported, Florida will exempt from taxes more sales than it taxes. To pay for school and university construction, Florida still relies on a utilities tax that doesn't include cellphones or water, sewer and garbage bills. The per-gallon gas tax, which provides money for roads, dates to a time of far less fuel-efficient cars. Weatherford, who by Tallahassee standards these days is a moderate Republican, says, "I want tax reform to be revenue-neutral." At the same time, he says, "We need a larger investment in universities from the state." And how will that happen, if everything stays "revenue-neutral?" Ten years ago, the state's share of the public universities' budgets was 31 percent. With the $300 million cut the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott just made, that figure will be less than 19 percent just a decade later. Even if their budgets stayed the same, universities would be falling behind. Enrollment at the 11 campuses has increased between 2 percent and 3 percent for the past several years. The Legislature gave the universities permission to raise tuition, but according to a State University System spokesman, tuition has covered less than 50 percent of the budget cuts over the last six years. Weatherford also warms up the talking point that "Florida doesn't have a revenue problem. We've got the same revenue as in the boom years." Really? Let's look at sales tax collections, the main source of Florida's revenue. In 2007, the last year of the real estate bubble, the sales tax brought in almost $23 billion. In 2011, the tax brought in just $19.3 billion. Collections for 2012 are running slightly ahead of last year, but if you figure growth in education and health care, along with inflation, the sales tax would need to raise about $28 billion to be in line with five years ago. Remember, too, that Florida remains a low-tax state. There's no personal income tax; it would take a constitutional amendment to start one. There's no state inheritance tax. The sales tax is a middle-of-the-pack 6 percent. For years, Florida levied a tax on stocks and bonds that weren't in retirement accounts. Snowbirds thus contributed a small portion to Florida in return for the megabucks they saved by not paying income taxes in New York, New Jersey and Illinois. The tax raised about $1 billion. Jeb Bush led the charge to abolish the tax, calling it "insidious." Scott wants to abolish the corporate income tax, which last year brought in about $2 billion.
Even in 2007, the last of the go-go years, the Tax Foundation calculated that Florida ranked 49th in per-capita spending for state services. There have been thousands of state layoffs the past two years. Tallahassee claims to be reaching for the stars. Florida can't get there with a tax system that was in place when John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral 50 years ago.
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