A plan to raise minimum salaries for Florida teachers by an average $10,000 a year is being greeted by Tampa Bay union leaders with mild applause and great concern.
The proposal, announced Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis at three school stops throughout the state, asks lawmakers to spend $603 million for the program, which would increase minimum salaries for teachers to $47,500. The average teacher in Florida makes under $38,000 a year, according to a 2017-18 survey by the National Education Association.
The announcement is meeting mixed reviews.
"The good news is that the governor is hearing about the dismal pay in the state," said Don Peace, president of the United School Employees of Pasco. The bad news: it won't help retain senior teachers because they are left out.
“I certainly think we're happy to hear that the governor is discussing teacher compensation,” said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. “At the same time, the announcement yesterday left me with as many questions as answers and some pretty significant concerns. What the governor did creates a great sound bite. It doesn't create a system that we can sustain necessarily.”
Union leaders pointed to several of what they see as flaws in the plan: it is a one-year funding solution vs. a long-term commitment to per-pupil spending, and it does not provide money for teachers who already make more than the proposed minimum salary.
For some experienced teachers, the raises could lead to their brand-new colleagues making essentially the same salary as they are. Union leaders worry that scenario would create a rift.
“You know, they view it as a slap in the face to them,” said Mike Gandolfo, the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. “While we want to see salaries rise across the board, and we're happy for those folks that are going to get $47,500 if this should happen, why are we neglecting the people that have been doing the job that have been here, been loyal and been taking care of our students for years?”
He used the example of a 12-year teacher making $47,501 who would not get the raise but work alongside a new hire making $47,500.
The governor and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the pay raises would go to more than 100,000 Florida teachers. Corcoran said Florida would go from 26th to 2nd in the nation for starting teacher pay if the plan is approved by the Legislature.
Those raises would not, however, go to other professionals working alongside teachers in the schools, such as librarians and guidance counselors, Gandolfo pointed out.
“The problem with this plan is that he defines classroom teachers as just those teachers that have classrooms assigned to them,” Gandolfo said. “But our bargaining units include our guidance counselors, include our speech language pathologists, include the school psychologist, the social workers, the support professionals.
“All these people come together as a team, to educate our students,” he added. “And to say that [they] won't get the same bump in pay as someone who's got a traditional classroom, that's just an injustice.”
During his news conferences Monday, DeSantis touted his record in the Legislature earlier this year on schools, including a record per-pupil spending of more than $7,600. He also pointed out increases in educational scholarships, also called school vouchers.
Union leaders are hoping DeSantis will be open to improving his proposal for the 2020 lawmaking session.
“It's obvious that the numbers we've been throwing around concerning education haven't been falling on deaf ears, because people are asking questions, and that's why they've decided to take some action,” Gandolfo said. “We'll just hope that the governor and lawmakers are willing to hear our concerns, maybe formulate a plan that could be digestible by everybody."