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Miami Teachers Look to Sue District Over Merit Pay Raises

A group of Miami teachers is looking to raise $100,000 to take on the school district over millions of dollars in alleged lost wages.

The educators—who are using the popular crowdsourcing platform Go Fund Me to raise money for the lawsuit—contend that the Miami-Dade school district is openly ignoring a 2011 Florida law that requires districts to give pay increases to teachers deemed highly effective or effective based on student test scores and classroom observations. They also contend that the district has illegally changed the way tenured teachers are compensated.

Miami-Dade, the nation's fourth largest school district, was a pioneer in a national movement to base teachers' compensation on performance. In 2011, with much fanfare, thousands of Miami teachers received pay bumps, and longtime superintendent Alberto Carvalho presented 120 educators with large novelty checks for amounts ranging from $4,000 to $25,000. Those payouts were funded by the district's share of the Obama Administration's $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, which offered states and school districts additional funds if they adopted some of the president's favorite education policies, including providing pay to teachers based on performance.

The idea behind merit pay is that educators need to be treated more like private sector employees, paid based on the quality of their work, not strictly on their years of experience and credentials. Florida lawmakers agreed and, during the same year that Miami began experimenting with merit pay, they passed a bill that mandated all districts in the state implement similar programs by 2014, becoming the first state to adopt a salary schedule based entirely on teacher performance. Miami's federal funds for their merit-pay program ran out the same year that the state mandate kicked in. 

Senate Bill 736 was the first piece of legislation signed by Governor Rick Scott. (Back In 2011, Stephen Sawchuk noted that similar efforts had been scuttled in previous years, but with Republicans in control of the legislature and governors' office, the bill became law after a party-line vote.)

The law not only mandated that teachers deemed effective or highly effective receive pay increases; it also eliminated tenure for new teachers. Veteran teachers could opt to continue to be paid under July 1, 2014 salary schedules based on years of experience and advanced degrees earned, though the law tried to get veteran teachers to abandon their tenure status and opt into the new pay structure by stipulating that pay increases for teachers under the merit-pay system must be larger than any pay increase on old pay scales.

In Miami that meant, highly effective teachers would receive $6,000 pay raises, while effective teachers would receive a smaller percentage of that figure. In 2014, 39 percent of Miami's 20,000 teachers were deemed highly effective, creating, officials say, an untenable financial position for the district, reported the Miami Herald.

By way of contrast, in neighboring Broward County, just 5 percent of the district's 14,000 teachers received the highly effective rating. While state law mandates that principal observations and student test scores be a part of evaluation systems, districts and unions negotiate the details of the process.

Last September, the United Teachers of Dade, the union representing Miami teachers, and the district agreed to a new pay scale that shrunk the raises promised to both tenured and non-tenured teachers.

The teachers behind the Go Fund Me campaign say the new contract is illegal, charging that it violates SB 736's provision that entitles tenured teachers to the "grandfathered salary schedule." The district counters that teacher raises are never guaranteed, but are instead negotiated regularly between districts and unions. Superintendent Carvalho has called the pay increases promised under the 2014 salary schedule "magical steps" that teachers knew weren't certain in hard times. 

Opponents of the 2011 legislation predicted then that just like other performance-pay programs, Florida's would eventually cause fiscal headaches. One Democratic lawmaker called it "the mother of all unfunded mandates," reported the Orlando Sentinel.

Funding problems haven't been the only headwinds for the state's merit-pay system. As Sawchuk reported, the research on the effectiveness of teacher performance pay is mixed at best. Additionally Florida's performance pay system has clashed with other education policies. For example, while lawmakers originally envisioned that eventually tests would be developed for every subject so that teachers in non-tested subjects like art and music could be more fairly compensated for their performance, that policy goal has evaporated under calls to reduce student testing. The system also greatly complicated Gov. Scott's 2013 pledge that every Florida teacher would get a pay raise.

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