There are few constants in Tallahassee but one that we can always count on is teacher pay ‘increase’ promises in an election year. This legislative session is no different as Governor DeSantis recently announced that he would increase Florida’s starting teacher pay to a minimum of $47,500. The announcement resulted in days of headlines followed by what appeared to many as odd lukewarm responses from teachers and superintendents.
Why the wait-and-see approach from those of us who follow Florida educational funding? Déjà vu. For starters, despite the headlines and rhetoric from legislators, the Governor of the State of Florida cannot single-handedly increase teacher pay, let alone increase starting teacher pay. Teacher pay is ultimately determined school-district-by-school-district, collective-bargaining-agreement-by-collective-bargaining-agreement per the Florida Constitution.
Remember back in 2013 when then Governor Rick Scott promised that every teacher in the State of Florida would receive a $2,500 raise? That session the Florida Legislature included $480 million in the budget for Scott’s initiative, and he tweeted “[e]very Florida teacher gets a pay raise.” And yet several months later only 16 of Florida’s 67 school districts had incorporated Scott’s proposal. In fact, on October 15, 2013, Scott sent a letter memorializing the same and reiterating that the Department of Education would continue working with the remaining districts in the hopes of making the promise a reality. In the end the funds were used as bonuses by most districts but for all employees and in varying amounts depending on their respective collective bargaining agreements. See the letter here: https://www.flgov.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Letter-to-Superintendents.pdf
The second reason for hesitation is that, unlike Scott’s proposal which sought to elevate the pay of all teachers, DeSantis is focusing on starting teacher pay which, while important to attract Floridians to the profession, fails to recognize that the removal of salary steps in teacher compensation several years ago would (if approved) create a situation wherein teachers with several years of experience would make less than first year teachers. This point is important for Miami-Dade County teachers since the current collective bargaining agreement between Miami-Dade County Public Schools and United Teachers of Dade provides for an annual temporary supplement for teachers with the larger sums going to mid-career teachers who were left behind when the salary steps were eliminated by our State legislators..
Finally, the most common reason for the cautious reception of DeSantis’ announcement is that he has been vague about the source of the funding needed for the increase. Unfortunately, educational funding in Florida tends to rob Peter to pay Paul despite the constitutional commitment to fund public education. That said, the announcement was made the same week that he criticized Best and Brightest, a controversial bonus program created by Governor Scott which everyone agrees needs reform. The Best and Brightest bucket of funding however only provides DeSantis with roughly 71.5% of what he needs to fund his proposal, and if eliminated, will reduce compensation for many teachers who have come to rely on the same. The other option is the A+ fund, created by Governor Jeb Bush, which brings conflict and discord to the recipient school who celebrate receiving the funding and then spends months figuring out how to distribute it.
Both Best and Brightest and the A+ Fund leave a lot to be desired and should be reevaluated. But in the end if Governor DeSantis and our legislators want to help our teachers and score brownie points with the rest of us, they should increase the per-student allocation and work with school districts to determine more equitable funding that will address first-year teacher pay while also acknowledging the value of classroom experience and years of service. In so doing they can make educational funding a priority and recognize the role of constitutionally-elected school board members, the superintendents they employ, the unions that bargain on behalf of our teachers and the dedicated teachers who are tired of pay raise promises that do not materialize. As we all look ahead to the 2020 legislative session, we hope that the feeling of déjà vu passes and is replaced by a state budget that prioritizes public education and teacher compensation.
Raquel Regalado is an attorney and former Miami-Dade County School Board Member.