TALLAHASSEE — It’s early in the process, but members of the Florida House’s committee on preK-12 education budgeting began their public discussion on Thursday of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to raise the base salaries of all Florida teachers to $47,500.
Unsurprisingly, the initial tone from the committee chair, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, was cautious, as he said he supports the idea of raising teacher pay but has his eye on the costs of the plan and is working to determine how it would be funded. DeSantis has said the total price tag for his plan would be $603 million, annually.
“We have a (teacher) shortage. Anything we can do to keep rewarding teachers ... is a good thing," Latvala told reporters after the meeting. “(But) we have to keep our budgets balanced. We’re not going to raise taxes, so we have to make sure the money is there and we’re going to do everything we can to find it.”
During the meeting, he mentioned that the billions in requests from state agencies, the lingering costs of Hurricane Michael and the specter of a potential future economic downturn are elements lawmakers should all keep in consideration.
The House has historically been the most conservative about new spending proposals, and already the House Speaker, Rep. José Oliva, has voiced skepticism about all the initiatives the governor and agencies would like to fund.
According to 2017-2018 data collected by the National Education Association, the average starting teacher salary in Florida is $37,636. But following DeSantis’ announcement last week, many teachers raised the point that a change only to the minimum base salary could mean that suddenly, new hires would make nearly as much as many underpaid veteran teachers, which could cause friction within districts.
Latvala mentioned that concern on Thursday, saying it’s something lawmakers should consider.
Another potential point of conflict could be the controversial teacher bonus program, called Best and Brightest. A powerful Republican in the Senate, Sen. Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, has already filed a bill to repeal the program, saying it is not working and acknowledging the teacher complaints that have mounted over the years.
There has been speculation that the hundreds of millions currently in that program could be redirected toward salary raises.
But Latvala said he would be hesitant to do that. The House led the creation of the bonus program and has been the loudest voice pushing for its survival.
“I’m a strong supporter of Best and Brightest,” he said.
DeSantis has hinted that he may soon unveil a plan for a new teacher bonus program.
In the meantime, the members of the House committee were tasked with looking at the current education budget to come up with $520 million in cuts that could go toward a teacher pay raise.
Still, lawmakers on the committee, especially Democrats, seemed giddy at the idea that something could finally be done in 2020 to mandate teacher pay raises, rather than bonuses. It’s an idea Democrats have proposed repeatedly each year, but often never got a hearing.
“Would the bonus program stay in place when we — when we — raise all of our teacher salaries?” asked Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville.
Latvala responded that it is far too early to tell, considering the legislative session doesn’t officially begin until January. Lawmakers have been meeting this fall in Tallahassee during their regular “committee weeks” to begin policy discussions, but there are no bills being passed until then.
“I’m speaking it into existence,” Davis said.