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Why Florida Public School Educators Aren't Happy In 'The Year Of The Teacher'

Teachers and union employees wore red to show support for public education during a rally in Sunrise on Friday, Nov. 15. Thousands of educators are headed to the Capitol for a rally in Tallahassee Monday.
Jessica Bakeman
Teachers and union employees wore red to show support for public education during a rally in Sunrise on Friday, Nov. 15. Thousands of educators are headed to the Capitol for a rally in Tallahassee Monday.

Florida teachers have won some battles on the pay front in recent years — but for them, it’s too little, too late.

Their discontent will be on display during a rally expected to draw thousands of public school educators to Tallahassee Monday afternoon. The Miami-Dade and Broward county teachers unions expect at least 700 teachers from each district to travel north for the event. In smaller Polk County, more than 1,000 teachers are expected to be out — enough that the state Department of Education warned that the absences could amount to an illegal strike and potentially justify firings and large fines.

The event is the culmination of a statewide bus tour led by the Florida Education Association, in which teachers union leaders have asked the state Legislature for a $2.4 billion infusion into public schools. They argue it could pay for an across-the-board 10 percent raise for school employees, plus support arts programs, purchase classroom equipment and fund facility upgrades.

“Our teachers and our students are doing a fantastic job … in spite of bad policy,” FEA president Fedrick Ingram told hundreds of Broward County educators gathered during a November event in Sunrise. “They’re doing a fantastic job in spite of a disinvestment in our public schools. They’re doing a fantastic job in spite of what lawmakers in Tallahassee continue to do: take money out of our public coffers and give it to unaccountable school systems.”

State lawmakers argue they’ve allocated record funding for education in recent years, as per-pupil dollars have ticked up steadily. But teachers unions have long argued those increases haven’t kept pace with inflation, and they’ve often included hundreds of millions of dollars for alternatives to traditional public education, like privately run charter schools and taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

As for addressing teacher pay, local governments and residents have done their part. About a third of Florida counties asked voters to approve property tax increases in 2018, mostly for teacher salary supplements. Every single referendum passed, leading to a bump in teachers’ paychecks.

Florida’s teacher salaries — among the lowest in the country at about $48,000 on average — were a major issue in the 2018 gubernatorial election, too. Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum pledged a mandated starting salary of $50,000, and while he lost, that focus has carried over into Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ first term.

“This coming legislative session really needs to be the year of the teacher,” DeSantis said while outlining his education priorities to journalists in Tallahassee in October.

The governor has proposed a floor of $47,500, which his office estimates would mean a raise for 60 percent of teachers.

“You have teachers starting in places like Miami and Broward at 40, 41ish — those are pretty tough places to get by on that. So that’ll be a relief for them,” DeSantis said. Miami-Dade starts teachers at $41,000, and Broward, at $40,724.

“Then you have other places, some of the rural communities, where they may not have as [large of a] pool of people [to hire from]. All of a sudden that’s going to be more attractive,” DeSantis said. “So I think it’s a really good tool to be able to recruit new teachers, and obviously to be able to help some of those who are not making a lot.”

Teachers unions aren’t happy with the minimum salary plan. They’ve argued $47,500 isn’t high enough in some parts of the state; in the Florida Keys, for example, starting teachers already make more than that. They’re especially angry that pushing up beginning salaries wouldn’t help some veteran teachers who make more than that, but not by much. And they argue his proposals leave out other school employees, like teachers’ aides, counselors, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

DeSantis has also proposed instituting performance-based bonuses for teachers and principals, especially ones who agree to teach in the most challenging schools.

Again, union leaders balked. They have said past bonus programs — including the unpopular “best and brightest” plan initially based on teachers’ own SAT scores — have been ineffective and are unreliable.

“Mr. Governor, bonus programs do not work. … We’ve seen them all,” Ingram, who is the former leader of Miami-Dade’s teachers union, said during the November event. “You need to compensate a salary that is commensurate with a professional job. And that is who we are: We are professionals who work with our future every day.”

DeSantis says the opposition is pure politics. Teachers unions typically support Democratic candidates. In 2018, FEA first endorsed Democrat and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham in the primary and later shifted support to DeSantis’ general election opponent, Gillum.

“I’m a Republican, they’re not, and so, what I’m doing is never going to be enough,” DeSantis said. “And my job is not to do what the union wants. It’s what I think’s best for education.”

DeSantis is also battling legislative leaders in his own party, though. Among other concerns, they have questioned whether the state can afford the nearly $1 billion price tag for his major education priorities.

"I am in receipt of the Governor's statement regarding teacher compensation as I am of the over $2B of new spending requests from his agencies,” Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva of Miami-Dade wrote in a statement responding to DeSantis’ minimum-salary proposal after he first announced it in October.

“My initial thought is one of gratitude for those who came before us and saw it fit to bind us and all future legislatures to a balanced budget."

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.