Today's news -- December 22, 2015


FEA claims race, age discrimination in bonus program

Since Florida's Best and Brightest teacher scholarship became law, educators have complained about the lack of fairness in the program that awards pay hikes in part for their years-old college entrance exams. On Monday, the Florida Education Association put some heft behind the words, filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Florida Commission on Human Relations. The state's largest teachers union contends the bonus, which was put into the state 2015-16 budget late in a special session, was denied to many qualified teachers because of problems with the quick implementation. Many teachers could not get their SAT or ACT scores to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, while some never took the exams and had limited options to sit for them before the application due date. "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," FEA President Joanne McCall said in a release. "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." In the news release, the organization explains why it finds the bonus program, which lawmakers are seeking to renew, is discriminatory in its view:

  • "Because no percentile data is available from ACT or SAT for teachers who took these tests before 1972, such teachers are disqualified from receiving the bonus.
  • "The October 1 deadline for submitting applications for the bonus further discriminates against teachers older than 40 years old, because a disproportionate number of them took the ACT and SAT many years ago and were unable to get access to their scores from the testing programs before the deadline.
  • "The exemption of first-year teachers from the requirement that they provide evidence of being rated "highly effective" under the respondent employers' performance evaluation system further discriminates against and has a disparate impact on teachers older than 40 years old. First-year teachers are overwhelmingly younger than 40 years of age.
  • "The bonus program also discriminates against African-American and Hispanic teachers by using the SAT and ACT as qualifiers. It has been well-established in the courts and peer-reviewed scholarship that the SAT and ACT are a racially and culturally biased tests that disparately impact test-takers on the basis of African-American and Hispanic race."

The FEA is seeking to ensure all qualified teachers have access to the money, which is to be distributed in the spring. About 5,200 teachers were deemed eligible by their districts, putting them in line for about $8,500 each.

The FEA is seeking to ensure all qualified teachers have access to the money, which is to be distributed for the first time in the spring. About 5,200 teachers have been deemed eligible by their districts, putting them in line for about $8,500 each. "Put together a system that makes it fair to everyone," said FEA President Joanne McCall. A better solution, she said, is to put the money into the state's budget formula. Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association President Mike Gandolfo said he encouraged his members to submit a checklist to the FEA if they felt discriminated against by the scholarship. "It's ludicrous, it's stupid, it made absolutely no sense," he said. "They need to fund education properly, not waste it on nonsensical things like this." Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, suggested the money would be better spent on the fees associated with helping teachers become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Such funding was cut off during the recession and participation in the program has dropped. "I guess that overall, any program that in any way rewards teachers is positive," she said. "But we need to find ways to do it in a fair and equitable manner."

"I know enough from employment law that the SAT and ACT weren't even valid for which the areas they were created," said Tallahassee attorney John Davis, who filed the claim on behalf of the FEA. "Here they're using them for a purpose for which they weren't even created." The EEOC claim joins three administrative petitions filed by Sarasota School District employees who also believe they were unfairly excluded from the scholarship. In one case, an occupational therapist at a Sarasota school carried many responsibilities as a teacher, but she was excluded because her title did not define her as one. The two other cases were centered on standards Fresen built using the standardized test requirements and the tight cutoff date for teacher performance evaluations. Those cases are represented by Tallahassee Attorney Ronald G. Meyer, who said Monday afternoon that they would be heard before the state Division of Administrative Hearings early next year.

Davis said the EEOC has 180 days to perform its own investigation into his claim, which would lead to a proposed remedy. Or, he could file a lawsuit.

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. 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, a Miami Republican 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.'" (Joanne McCall quoted) (Joanne McCall quoted) (Joanne McCall quoted) (Joanne McCall quoted) (Joanne McCall and Mark Pudlow quoted) (Mark Pudlow quoted)


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