How to fix failing schools? Miami-Dade seeks $2.3 million in teacher bonuses to do it

How do you fix struggling schools? One idea: Pay teachers more.

Teacher bonuses are among several ideas the Miami-Dade and Broward school districts have proposed as they compete for additional funding through a controversial new state program designed to rehabilitate Florida’s lowest performing schools while potentially supplanting them with privately run charters.

Miami-Dade alone is asking the state for some $2.3 million for teacher bonuses through “Schools of Hope” to attract and keep the district’s best teachers at five schools eligible for the program.

If the schools are selected, teachers rated “highly effective” through a state-mandated teacher evaluation system could earn up to $11,500 in bonuses if they stay at or transfer into one of the eligible schools, have good attendance and help their students improve.

“The impact of a highly effective teacher is a key factor that contributes to school improvement,” district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said in an e-mail, explaining the strategy.

That kind of idea is what we’re looking for, because we know there are issues regarding teacher retention overall. At the end of the day, your most valuable resources are your teacher in the classroom and the leader in the building.

House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah

Broward is also asking for “Hope” money to pay for teacher recruitment and retention bonuses at three qualifying schools. Eligible teachers with perfect attendance could earn up to an extra $8,000 to $9,000, although it’s unclear how much funding Broward is asking for in total across the three schools.

The requested funds are part of $6.9 million in proposals in Miami-Dade and $3.4 million in Broward to turn around a total of eight struggling South Florida schools. The applications also ask for money to pay for a range of services for low-income students and their families, including after-school activities, tutoring and family counseling.

Across the state, 57 of 93 eligible newly failing traditional schools applied for a chance at receiving the maximum $2,000 per student through “Schools of Hope.” They each have roughly a 50-50 shot at getting the money. In enacting the new program through House Bill 7069 last spring, lawmakers capped the traditional school aid at only 25 schools at any given time.

As a result, the maximum amount of money that can be distributed this fall to the schools is $51.5 million, about 37 percent of the $140 million allocated for “Schools of Hope.” (At most around 26,000 students statewide could benefit from the funds, although tens of thousands more remain in failing schools.)

The leftover “Hope” funding will be used later to doll out financial incentives to charter school operators who can set up competing schools near the 93 failing ones. That part of the program hasn’t yet been implemented.

The 25 traditional public schools receiving aid will be chosen Sept. 13 by the state Board of Education, whose members will have virtually free rein to accept or deny the applications for any reason — although Republican lawmakers said that the intent of the law was to reward the most innovative ideas.

The eligible schools submitted uniform applications without knowing how exactly they would be judged, and with the board meeting two weeks away, there’s no indication they will know beforehand.

State Public Schools Chancellor Hershel Lyons wrote to superintendents in July that “a rubric and review protocol is being developed and will be used to rank and award applicants” — which would have given the applicants an idea of how they’d be scored and given state board members an objective way to assess each applicant.The matter remained of interest to district officials weeks later, who asked the state DOE about the rubric in Q&A sessions following two webinars the department held to advise administrators about “Schools of Hope” and the application process.

But no such guidance was ever developed for state board members, who received the applications Aug. 25 to review and informally rank as they see fit.

After repeated requests by the Herald/Times for the scoring rubric that was promised to districts, state Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Collins said this week that “there is no plan to issue a rubric to the members.”

In response to further questions, Collins clarified that a rubric was crafted only for the DOE’s internal use to guide Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s recommendation of which 25 schools should be awarded. Stewart will offer her suggestions for members to consider at the meeting before they make their final selection, Collins said.

johnson and stewart

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, left, and State Board of Education Chairwoman Marva Johnson listen during a May 2017 meeting of the state board. In September, the board will decide which 25 traditional public schools will be awarded money through the new “Schools of Hope” program.

Florida Channel

The lack of structure in choosing the recipients is raising questions. House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr. — a Hialeah Republican who helped craft the law — said Thursday he was inquiring with the department about it.

“There has to be a process in question when you do this,” he said. “When you pass a law, you want the department to have flexibility [in implementing it], but there has to be a process to identify these schools.”

He added: “I don’t think there’s anything that precludes them but I don’t think it’s the wisest way to go to not provide a rubric that could provide them [the board] with a way to reach an educated decision.”

Miami-Dade indicated that the rubric would have been useful before applying. “Typically, we would get a rubric prior to the grant deadline, which assists in the development of the application,” said Gonzalez-Diego, the Miami-Dade schools spokeswoman.

Other districts, like Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, took no issue with it.

“Pinellas County Schools is appreciative of any opportunity that helps support our students. The district is not concerned with the change in process,” spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said.

The selection process could also be complicated by another factor: Several of the school districts seeking “Hope” money are planning to sue the state over provisions in the new education law that they believe violate the Florida Constitution.

When asked whether these districts’ opposition to the law could or would be held against them in the board’s selection, Collins replied only: “No.”

The Miami-Dade and Broward school boards are among at least 11 districts statewide that have voted to challenge the constitutionality of HB 7069 in court. No lawsuit has yet been filed.

Spokespeople for Miami-Dade and Broward said the districts don’t see it as a conflict of interest.“The School Board applies for every competitive grant opportunity that is available for funding that will assist our struggling students,” Gonzalez-Diego said, adding that the legal challenge “does not focus on this part of the legislation.”

United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernández-Mats, a vocal critic of the education law, agreed with the district. “We need to fight for every dime,” she said. “We need to apply and make those opportunities available to us.”

Diaz said it was “unfortunate” so many districts still want to dismantle the law.

“They have to realize they’re suing their own constituents,” Diaz said. “We should continue to work together. If there are issues, then we should have a dialogue.”

Diaz Manny

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah

Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

But there is one thing Diaz and the South Florida districts appear to agree on: using the “Hope” money for teacher bonuses.

“That kind of idea is what we’re looking for, because we know there are issues regarding teacher retention overall,” Diaz said. “At the end of the day, your most valuable resources are your teacher in the classroom and the leader in the building. … If [the school’s] intention is to use that money to attract better leaders and to get the best people in the classroom, then that’s good.”

“We’ve been beating the drum with Best & Brightest [bonuses], but now they see the value of the idea and are thinking of concepts to get the best people in front of these communities and keep them there,” Diaz said.

Headed into its third year, Best & Brightest rewards top teachers based on their SAT or ACT scores from when they were high school students. It was expanded through HB 7069 to now also guarantee bonuses to teachers rated “highly effective” or “effective” for at least the next three years. The bonuses proposed by Miami-Dade and Broward as part of “Schools of Hope” would be separate from Best & Brightest, which has its own $234 million pot of funding to benefit teachers statewide.

Some districts chose to apply for all of their eligible schools, while other districts were more selective or didn’t choose to seek the money at all.

For instance, Hillsborough County had the most schools eligible to apply at 18, but only three didChamberlain High, Forest Hills Elementary and Robles Elementary.

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Hillsborough Schools understood the reality presented by the 25-school cap. “We believe funding will be spread across the state, so we want to give our schools the best possible chance to receive this much needed money,” she said.

Similarly, only three of five eligible schools from Pinellas County applied: Largo Middle, Midtown Academy and Mildred Helms Elementary.

School officials in Pasco County — home to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who fought fiercely to enact “Schools of Hope” — didn’t apply for their two eligible schools Ridgewood High and West Zephyrhills Elementary.

District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said Pasco officials are “confident” both schools will come off the failing schools list after this school year. She noted that West Zephyrhills already qualified for a $300,000 state school improvement grant, and Ridgewood is likely to qualify if it gets assigned another “D” grade. (The school’s 2016-17 grade is still listed as “incomplete.”)

The districts that did apply proposed a wide variety of ideas to help their most vulnerable students overcome not just academic obstacles, but also the challenges they face at home, including poverty.

Several districts, including Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, proposed hiring new staff to coordinate wraparound services or serve as “community liaisons” to increase parental involvement in the school and to work with local organizations to create a support network for students. Teacher training and professional development are also common themes through many applications.

Others want to provide nursing staff, medical care and social services, so that would be one less thing students and their families need to worry about. For instance, Palm Beach Lakes High School in West Palm Beach proposes to contract with the Community Health Partnership to retain social workers who would help address mental health and behavioral issues and provide student and parent counseling.

Oneco Elementary School in Bradenton — where the school says 51 percent of students are Hispanic, 30 percent don’t speak English and 100 percent live in poverty — wants to sponsor a “Parent University” in collaboration with Manatee Technical College to “increase parent understanding of how to support their child’s learning while educating the parent at the same time to improve the family’s lives.”

The school wants $100,000 for the “university” so students’ parents can take English classes, obtain a high school-level degree (GED), and take technical classes to train for jobs. The money would also help pay for a new “Parents as Teachers” program to teach parents better parenting skills and how to support their child’s academics

The “Schools of Hope” applications also provide a window into some of the hurdles the state’s lowest performing schools face.

At Homestead Middle School, for example, almost a quarter of the students have 21 or more absences, according to the school’s application. At Northside Elementary in Broward County, the attrition rate for teachers — which includes teachers who transferred to another school or resigned — was close to 30 percent last year.

The DOE initially refused to release any of the applications after a Herald/Times public records request following the schools’ Aug. 15 application deadline. The department argued the applications were under a “competitive solicitation” that made them “confidential and exempt” until after the state board selects the winners.

However, nothing in HB 7069 designated the applications as such, and after the Herald/Times insisted on their release, the DOE ultimately published all of the applications online on Aug. 23.

“Upon further review, we determined that disclosure was permitted under the law,” Collins said.

Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. Gurney reported from Miami.