Teacher Bonus Pay In Florida Limited By Law That Requires Advanced Degree Relation To Taught Coursework

A controversial Florida state law limits how new teachers may receive bonus pay based on advanced degrees, preventing an art teacher, for example, from earning a bonus for having a Ph.D. in English.

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the law's co-authors, says the Student Success Act of 2011 was designed to incentivize teachers to focus on student results, and includes not compensating teachers for advanced degrees that do not directly translate to student learning.

Brevard Public Schools have taken the law to mean that degrees must correspond to teaching certificates for all new teachers, Florida Today reports. Previously, teachers received a stipend -- which can go as high as $5,200 for a doctorate -- just on the basis of possessing an advanced degree in any subject.

The law has sparked outrage among more than a third of 141 new teachers hired by Brevard Public Schools this past year, including 25-year-old Scott Johnson.

Johnson, who holds a bachelor's and master's degree in space sciences from Florida Tech, became a teacher at Palm Bay High School following graduation. There, he taught algebra II, math for college readiness and math analysis. However, because his master's degree was not in math, he was not eligible 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."

Gaetz told Florida Today that some changes to the law might be necessary, particularly when it comes to the overlapping STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Richard Smith, president of Brevard's teachers union, however, maintains that subjects in science, technology, education and math -- otherwise known as STEM -- are not the only ones that overlap. For instance, an advanced degree in history could prove valuable when teaching about literature.

The law also implies that new teachers who earned master's degrees in areas such as curriculum and instruction do not qualify for a supplement, since there is no corresponding certification in those areas.

About 43 percent of Brevard's teachers have advanced degrees, though those employed by the district before July 1, 2011 were not affected, according to the Examiner.

Various methods of teacher pay have been the center of national debate. In Indiana -- and other states -- laws passed based at least partly on the principle of merit pay have raised numerous questions. The Indiana laws passed last year mark a large shift away from former pay structures that granted raises largely based on experience and earned academic degrees.