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The Florida Roundup
The Florida Roundup is a live, weekly call-in show with a distinct focus on the issues affecting Floridians. Each Friday at noon, listeners can engage in the conversation with journalists, newsmakers and other Floridians about change, policy and the future of our lives in the sunshine state.Join our hosts, veteran journalists from our partner public radio stations: WLRN’s Danny Rivero, broadcasting from Miami, and WJCT’s Melissa Ross, broadcasting from Jacksonville.

The school year is coming with a shortage of teachers and new rules on what and how they may teach

Students at their desks with a teacher in the background
Pasco County Schools
A teacher and class in Pasco County

The new school year is about one month away for some Florida families and teachers. And there are thousands of vacant jobs in public schools across the state.

More than 400,000 students may start their new school year without a full-time, certified teacher at the front of the classroom. That’s the worry from the state’s teacher union — the Florida Education Association.

The new state education commissioner, Manny Diaz, knows it's a big problem. In April, he told The Florida Roundup it was his number one issue.

“The number on thing this year we’re facing this year is a teacher shortage. There’s an issue with recruitment and retention,” he said.

A few years ago, voters in several school districts voted to pay more in property taxes with some of the new dollars going toward raising teacher pay. Still, the average teacher pay statewide is about $51,000 dollars, more than $10,000 below the national average.

When the last school year ended there were 400 vacancies in Miami-Dade public schools according to United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernández-Mats. That included teachers, counselors and other staff positions.

The Florida Channel
Manny Diaz, Jr.

"You have to expect that the quality of education is going to suffer when you don't have a permanent teacher that's certified in that subject area to teach those kids," she said.

Teacher pay has risen, but veteran teachers complain about being largely left out of efforts to increase teacher paychecks. A starting teacher salary is $47,000, while the average teacher salary is less than 10% more.

"Our state just hasn't done enough to fund our schools and get those resources where they need to be," Hernández-Mats said. "They've focused on beginning teachers, which has unfortunately been something that has been traumatic for our veteran teachers. And so we know there is inadequate salaries."

While Florida's starting teacher pay ranks ninth in the nation according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, the average teacher pay is 48th in the nation according to the National Education Association.

"I would say that inadequate salaries is a driving factor in Miami-Dade when people cannot live in the communities that they teach," said Hernández-Mats.

"And of course, the political climate," she added.

Teachers will face new rules and materials in the classroom when the new year begins. Civics curriculum has been revised in ways some say diminish the role of race in America’s history.

Social Studies teachers have been gathering for three days of classes to cover the state's new civics project. The Civics Literary Excellence Initiative is a $106 million project for revised civics curriculum. The teachers who attend the training get $700, and are eligible for an extra $3,000 if they complete a 60-hour online course. But some have been critical of the new material, especially how it represents race and American history.

"It is clearly politically biased," said Justin Vogel, who is a teacher at Creekside High School in St. Johns County. "My specialty is academic research, and what they're doing is clearly biased. It's propagating a perspective instead of offering multiple perspectives. They're substituting the originalist perspective for straight fact. And it's not academically honest to do what they're doing. It needs to be fixed, not eliminated."

State presenters led some sessions while other breakout sessions were created with a private Christian college in Michigan, Hillsdale College.

One slide in a presentation titled "Colonial Seeds of American Independence" displays a map of the global slavery trade. A bullet point says, "Less than 4% of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was in Colonial America."

"The message was 'Everybody was doing it and ours wasn't as bad as others,' " said Vogel. "It's pretty dishonest to say that because we study our own history and the institution of slavery in our country."

Education Commissioner Manny Diaz pushed back on Twitter against the public criticisms of the training.

Civics education is not the only lightning rod of controversy in Florida classrooms. The state’s new Parental Rights in Education law bans sexual orientation or gender identity instruction that is not age appropriate, though what that means has not been defined by the state education department.

Some school boards are hoping to provide some guidance for teachers and parents. In Tallahassee, the Leon County School Board OKed a “LGBTQ Inclusive School Guide” this summer.

"It really is trying to find a balance for both sides of this very, very emotional issue," said Leon County Public School Board Vice Chair Alva Striplin. "Both the students who are struggling with their gender identity, as well as the parents who have rights, not only as parents, but under the law in Florida. It is trying to find that middle ground."

The new guide requires the school to tell a parent if their child will be with a student who is open about their gender identity is in a gym class or an overnight field trip.

"It does provide the framework. It also provides statute and and case law and references for any issue that our teachers might encounter," said Striplin. She added the guide also includes "the welcoming and affirmation plan."

For example, the plan provides guidelines for teachers and staff if a parent or student at least 18 years old tells a school their preferred name and pronoun.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.