Gov. Rick Scott is standing up for teachers, and that's a welcome change. His proposal asking the Legislature to approve $2,500 raises for teachers in 2013-14 would address their declining compensation due to changes Scott and the Legislature have championed over the past two years. Teachers deserve higher pay, but the governor's proposal has more to do with his re-election campaign than improving public education. It is no substitute for passing thoughtful policy and providing adequate resources for reforms already on the books.
Scott visited an Orlando middle school Wednesday to announce that his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, scheduled to be fully unveiled next week, would include $480 million to provide raises for Florida's 168,000 teachers. The proposal was welcomed by many education advocates, even as its chances of legislative approval appear uncertain. Florida's finances for 2013-14 look far better than in recent years when lawmakers cut costs by forcing pension contributions from public employees, including teachers, and held salaries stagnant for state workers who weren't laid off. But the anticipated $2.1 billion surplus is far from enough to meet all of the legitimate demands for additional spending.
Senate President Don Gaetz, for example, questioned whether it would be fair to grant teachers pay increases but not corrections officers, highway patrol officers and other state workers who haven't seen pay increases for six years. House Speaker Will Weatherford questioned whether it might be more prudent to pump the money into a still unfunded teacher merit pay scheme set to go into full effect in 2014-15.
Lacking from Scott or Republican legislative leaders, however, was any acknowledgement of their contribution to the dire straits of public employees. They are the ones who chose to give tax breaks throughout the economic recession, forcing even deeper funding cuts throughout state government and across education. Those education cuts included an 8 percent cut in 2011-12 for public schools and a $300 million cut to state universities in 2012-13. Even the state's voluntary prekindergarten program, routinely hailed as one of the smartest ways to save money by ensuring children are better prepared to learn when they arrive in public school, has seen significant per-student funding cuts since 2010.
Scott is right that Florida, at 46th in the nation, needs to pay its teachers more. But his plan falls short of the ambitions he and legislative leaders have promoted in recent years but never funded. They have championed a new but highly flawed teacher evaluation system whose goal, nonetheless, is an admirable one: to better compensate the best teachers and weed out the poor ones. Scott's $2,500 per teacher plan would provide welcome relief for a beleaguered teaching corps, but it would not advance those broader ambitions or make up for all of the damage this governor has done to public education.