Dealing with low poll ratings at the time and a looming re-election campaign, Florida Gov. Rick Scott four years ago pushed strongly to give every teacher a $2,500 pay raise.
But this week when asked by a top teacher about low salaries, Scott contended that it was largely out of his control and instead could only be remedied by county school boards.
"The way our system is set up in our state those decisions are made at the local level," Scott said during a round-table discussion with a group of teachers picked for teacher of the year honors from their school districts. "What I tell everybody is, 'You have to be active with your school board members, your superintendents.'"
Scott made his remarks after a north Florida teacher confronted the governor about teacher pay. Judith Mandela from Gadsden County told Scott that teachers are "frustrated" and leaving the profession because of their salaries. Federal data shows that Florida's teacher salaries are below the national average. Mandela suggested that there should be a minimum salary for starting teachers.
"You said (that) our job is not a high-paying job but (it) is satisfying," said Mandela, whose comments drew wide applause from the teachers meeting with Scott. "Teaching and getting paid well is also satisfying."
It's true that local school board officials are responsible for negotiating contracts with local teacher unions that spell out how much teachers get paid. But the amount of money that school districts have to spend overall is shaped in large part by the Florida Legislature and the governor. Sometimes legislators also put more money into education, but tie it to specific programs that range from bonuses tied to test scores to extra money for charter schools.
Back in 2013, Scott jumped directly into the fray over teacher salaries by pushing legislators to set aside nearly $500 million to give every teacher a raise. The Republican-controlled Legislature agreed to spend the money, but added restrictions on who could qualify for the money. Scott made the proposal at a time he had been under fire for pushing large spending cuts to education during his first year in office.
"Investing in Florida's teachers is important to our children's future," Scott said at the time.
Democratic politicians have been clamoring for years — with little success — for the Legislature to establish salary levels for teachers. Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park, has filed a bill for the 2018 session that would guarantee a $3,000 pay raise for every teacher and principal next year. Democratic candidates running for governor have also promised to boost teacher salaries.
"Every year, legislation is filed to give teachers the raise they deserve, Governor Scott is nowhere to be found," said Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is an outspoken critic of Scott.