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Approval sought for ‘Best and Brightest' settlement

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state Department of Education and the Florida Education Association asked a federal judge Thursday to preliminarily approve a $15.5 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit alleging that the "Best and Brightest" teacher-bonus program discriminated against black and Hispanic teachers.

The settlement stems from a long-controversial decision by 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 filed the lawsuit in 2017 alleging 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, which has been in the works for months, hinged on state 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.

"This settlement provides outstanding and meaningful relief to the class (of teachers), including substantial monetary relief funded by an aggregate settlement fund of $15,500,000 to be shared by class members and substantial non-monetary, injunctive relief in the form of a condition, which has occurred, that the Florida Legislature repeal the program's testing requirements and not enact similar requirements," attorneys for the Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs said in a court document filed Thursday.

The settlement said the state denies the allegations that the program had a disparate impact on black, Hispanic and older teachers. A document filed Thursday by the Department of Education pointed to a desire to resolve the lengthy litigation.

"The department agreed to settle this action in order to avoid the burden, expense, risk, and uncertainty of continued litigation, and to put to rest the controversies engendered by the action, and without any admission of any liability or wrongdoing whatsoever," the department's attorneys wrote.

The settlement creates a formula for determining the amount of payments to black and Hispanic teachers who are eligible, but the exact amounts of payment remain unclear. A document filed Thursday indicates an estimated 31,000 teachers would be eligible to file claims and receive payments for one or more of the years the Best and Brightest program has been in effect. Also, as much as 15 percent of the settlement fund could go to attorney fees and other costs.

While teacher bonuses have long drawn debate in the Capitol, the Best and Brightest program has been particularly controversial because of the use of scores on ACT and SAT exams that, in some cases, teachers took decades earlier. The lawsuit alleged that many black, Hispanic and older teachers were disproportionately denied the bonuses and that the program violated civil-rights laws.

"The SAT/ACT score requirement has an illegal disparate impact on teachers based on their age and on teachers based on their black and Hispanic race," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote in 2017. "The SAT/ACT score requirement is not required by business necessity and is not related to job performance."

While the parties sought preliminary approval of the settlement Thursday, they plan to seek final approval after a period in which teachers can "opt out."