Judge backs ‘Best and Brightest' settlement

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal judge has given preliminary approval to a settlement that calls for the state to pay $15.5 million in a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination in the controversial "Best and Brightest" teacher-bonus program.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a 22-page order Monday that said the $15.5 million "settlement fund is a fair and reasonable recovery considering all the facts and circumstances" in the case. He will hold what is known as a "fairness" hearing in March, after which he could give final approval to the settlement.

The state Department of Education and the Florida Education Association asked Hinkle to give preliminary approval in September, after two years of legal wrangling about whether the Best and Brightest program discriminated against black, Hispanic and older teachers.

The lawsuit has focused on a decision by state lawmakers to partly base Best and Brightest bonuses on teachers' scores on SAT and ACT college-admission exams. The Florida Education Association, a union that represents teachers throughout the state, and individual plaintiffs alleged in the lawsuit that the use of the SAT and ACT scores had a "disparate impact" on black, Hispanic and older teachers.

Under the settlement, money will go to black and Hispanic classroom teachers who were rated as "highly effective" but did not receive Best and Brightest bonuses since the program took effect in 2015. Also, the settlement hinged on lawmakers passing a bill to remove the SAT and ACT requirement from the program -- a move lawmakers made this spring with Gov. Ron DeSantis' support.

The settlement creates a formula for determining the amount of payments to black and Hispanic teachers who are eligible. While the state would pay $15.5 million to resolve the case, the settlement said the state denies the allegations about a disparate impact on black, Hispanic and older teachers. 

In giving preliminary approval, Hinkle pointed to a series of factors supporting the settlement. For example, he wrote that the "litigation is complex, has been protracted, already having consumed almost two years, and if not settled likely will go on for considerable additional time (including appeals) at substantial additional expense."

Also, he wrote that the "proposed settlement avoids the uncertainties of contested litigation and provides the classes with meaningful and certain relief."

The March 12 fairness hearing will allow interested parties to be heard about issues such as whether the settlement is fair and reasonable. Hinkle wrote that he does not assess fairness when considering preliminary approval.

"Nonetheless, even a limited consideration of the various factors used to evaluate the fairness of a settlement demonstrates that the proposed settlement easily falls within the range of settlements that may ultimately be approved by the court," he wrote.  

The fairness hearing will come during the final scheduled week of the 2020 legislative session, which is expected to include extensive debate about teacher pay. DeSantis has proposed raising minimum teacher salaries in the state to $47,500 and has left open the possibility of also providing bonuses for teachers and principals.