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DUNEDIN — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday that he will urge Florida lawmakers to raise the minimum starting salary for teachers to $47,500.
While each school district sets its own starting salaries now, Florida currently ranks near the bottom in the nation for average teacher pay, and salary raises have been something that teachers have long sought from the state government. According to 2017-2018 data collected by the National Education Association, the average starting teacher salary in Florida is $37,636.
“If you look at ways you can make an impact in students’ achievement ... having a great teacher in front of the students is really the best thing that you can do,” DeSantis said at Middleburg High School, which is about 40 minutes southwest of Jacksonville, the first of three stops he made across Florida for the announcement.
DeSantis said that enacting his proposal would lead to more than 100,000 teachers statewide receiving a raise, because it would apply both to new hires and teachers who are already working at rates below this new threshold. That includes about 22,000 in the Tampa Bay area, he noted during an appearance later Monday at his alma mater — Pinellas County’s Dunedin High.
The pay plan, which would cost a total of $603 million, will be included in the governor’s proposed budget, which is taken as a suggestion to the Legislature as lawmakers decide each year how the state will spend its money. DeSantis said he plans to submit his budget in December.
But he didn’t use specifics to answer a question in Dunedin about where the funds will come from. Instead, he assured a group of reporters that he has “crunched the numbers” and that his proposal is not “pie in the sky.”
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran called the proposal a “game changer,” noting that Florida nationally ranks at about 26th for its starting teacher pay, and this new dollar figure would put it at No. 2 in the nation.
Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough teachers’ union, said the fact that state leaders are finally open to the idea of raising teacher pay is a major step forward.
However, “I absolutely am going to need more details,” he said.
One question he and several others raised was whether this proposal would only impact the salaries of teachers near the bottom of the pay scale who fall below the $47,500 mark. If so, that could mean that starting teachers could suddenly make nearly as much as many underpaid veterans.
“That’s going to cause some friction,” Kriete said.
Brad Bolt, a band teacher at Dunedin High, thanked DeSantis for working to make teaching better in Florida. He’s getting married this year and plans to start a family soon.
“These pay raises and this focus on improving conditions for teachers is something that will directly impact me and my family to make sure that we get off to a strong start,” Bolt said. “It’s really exciting for me to see that there are great changes coming in a positive light.”
The announcement is something DeSantis has been telegraphing since the end of the 2019 session this spring when he told reporters that teacher pay was an issue he wanted to revisit. Florida has been struggling with a teacher shortage for many years, something that teachers’ unions have blamed, at least in part, on low salaries.
In recent weeks, DeSantis had gotten more specific, saying that the existing “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program was overly “complicated,” even though Republican lawmakers spearheaded its creation in 2015 and had just passed another bill this year to overhaul it.
Teachers have long said they would prefer across-the-board raises to bonuses, in part because they allow for greater financial security. Democratic state lawmakers have also filed bills to raise starting teacher pay for years, but they often never got hearings.
Late last week, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the Senate budget chair and a close ally of DeSantis’, filed a bill to repeal the Best and Brightest program from state law, saying it had not fulfilled its goal.
“Its purpose, to attract and reward good teachers, is certainly laudable,” Bradley said. "In practice, it has managed to frustrate many good teachers with seemingly random outcomes, and ironically it has made many good teachers feel less appreciated.”
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But the Florida House, typically the more fiscally conservative chamber, may be more skeptical. Republican House Speaker José Oliva released a measured statement Monday afternoon, signaling that he is committed to keeping state spending tight.
“I am in receipt of the governor’s statement regarding teacher compensation as I am of the over $2B (billion) of new spending requests from his agencies,” he wrote. “My initial thought is one of gratitude for those who came before us and saw it fit to bind us and all future legislatures to a balanced budget.”
Andrew Spar, vice president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, said he was grateful to DeSantis for looking at teacher salary raises as a way to boost pay, rather than bonuses that saw their eligibility criteria changing from year to year.
“We’ve had one bonus scheme after another,” he said. "We know these bonus schemes fail.”
But in response to questions about veteran teacher pay from reporters in Fort Lauderdale, where DeSantis also stopped to tout this roll-out, he said that both he and Corcoran are working on additional proposals that will be announced before the 2020 legislative session begins in January.
One of them, he hinted, could be a “revamped” teacher bonus program.