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Florida teachers union asks candidates to pledge support for higher pay

'We can afford to make funding for education and education salaries a priority,' FEA president Joanne McCall says.

Florida's largest teachers union wants to put candidates for state offices on the spot when it comes to education funding.

Will they sign a pledge to raise teacher and support staff salaries to the national average by 2023? Or won't they?

The answers should help voters decide who they want to back in the August primary and November general election, Florida Education Association president Joanne McCall said Tuesday, as she rolled out the initiative.

"The Legislature likes accountability," McCall told reporters during a conference call. "We kind of do, too."

Already, the four Democrats running for governor have signed the measure, as have a handful of other Democratic candidates and office holders. Republicans, whom the FEA generally has opposed, have yet to join the effort.

That's not too surprising given the past several years activity in Tallahassee. The Republican-dominated Legislature has routinely taken the stance that teachers are paid adequately, education funding is at all-time highs, and renewable performance bonuses are sufficient to increase educator pay.

Since 2013, Democrats have filed legislation in all but one year seeking to set a minimum educator salary of either $50,000 or the national average. Some sought to enshrine the idea in the state Constitution.

Not one of the 10 bills received a hearing in a single committee. Only small numbers of lawmakers cosponsored the measures.

Gov. Rick Scott, a conservative Republican, proposed boosting every teacher's salary by $2,500 in 2013, at a cost of about $480 million — the same amount the FEA is suggesting would be needed to get everyone to the national average now.

That effort proved elusive, as well, despite the intention.

Such a history had even some diehard labor union activists concerned that a pledge to back education might not be enough.

"If they don't fund it, then it means nothing," said Don Peace, president of the United School Employees of Pasco.

McCall noted that the pledge includes a call to vote for only budgets that support the salary initiative. And she said there is plenty of money to tap into for making the goal a reality.

She mentioned the state tax credit scholarship program that the union routinely refers to as an unregulated misuse of state funds. And she spoke of $600 million in waste, detailed in a Florida TaxWatch report on legislative "turkeys."

She defied lawmakers and candidates to look teachers and support personnel, many of whom work second jobs to make ends meet, in the eye "and tell them they're not worth it."

To bolster the position, a handful of educators spoke about their personal situations.

Linda Gorman, a special education paraprofessional in Polk County, said she makes under $15,000 a year — not nearly enough to support her family as a single parent.

"I love my job. I want to stay there," Gorman said. "I do have to work a second job because I don't make that much."

Brian Kerekes, an Osceola County high school math teacher, said he serves food at Disney in his off hours to make ends meet and afford a bit of a life. He has two roommates, and often grades papers during his lunch break at Disney, where he sometimes works until 2 a.m.

"I still want to grow and improve in my role as a teacher," Kerekes said. "I have a lot on my plate. That makes it hard."

National data show that Florida's educator salaries are near the bottom of all states, and have decreased when inflation is considered. With support mounting in Florida and other states for teachers, after some walkouts and strikes in some states, McCall sounded convinced that change could be in the air.

"Florida is a very wealthy state," she said. "We can afford to make funding for education and education salaries a priority."