As a longtime economics teacher, Lee Bryant understands the complexities of Florida’s teacher pay debate.
On the one hand, younger educators need higher pay to keep the profession attractive, said Bryant, a St. Petersburg High School teacher in his 24th year.
On the other, classroom veterans need some attention, too. Bryant said he has children in college to pay for, expenses caring for his elderly parents and never-ending household repairs and bills — things he can’t count on a one-time bonus to cover.
“I have extra work I do,” he said, mentioning his weekend and holiday security guard gig to make ends meet. “Things add up.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently declared 2020 the “year of the teacher,” championing a minimum statewide teacher salary of $47,500 and a new bonus program he hopes will soothe the controversies of previous bonus structures.
His pitches, if enacted, would total nearly $1 billion, create a potential bipartisan win and bring praise for finally addressing the state’s long-festering teacher shortage.
But it’s already become clear it won’t be that easy.
Despite broad support for boosting teacher pay, that backing splinters when you go below the surface. Among school boards, teachers unions and even Republican lawmakers, no clear consensus has emerged on how to make it a reality.
In the Legislature, Miami Republicans have raised the issue of equity for places with higher costs of living. Monroe County’s minimum teacher salary is already $47,500, and Miami-Dade’s falls just below when money from its recent referendum is included. But that doesn’t mean South Florida taxpayers should bear the costs of boosting salaries elsewhere, the lawmakers argue.
“This is really great for the rest of the state, but it doesn’t mean anything for my constituents in Monroe County, and you can’t live off of $47,500 in Monroe County just like you can barely live off of that in Miami-Dade,” Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said at a recent conference put on by the Miami Herald.
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the preK-12 appropriations committee, has said he’s not fully on board with DeSantis’ proposal to scrap the “Best and Brightest” bonus program and funnel its $285 million toward the new proposals. The House has ardently defended Best and Brightest against criticism that its eligibility criteria have been unfair and its bonuses of little help to teachers needing reliable income.
“(Best and Brightest) was a program I’ve supported, that a lot of people have supported in the House,” Latvala said, but added “everything is on the table.”
In the Senate, a bill to repeal the program has passed its first committee. Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he has separate concerns about removing control of teacher salaries from local school boards.
“When you go through and put it as a one-size-fits-all, then you can create … some inequities,” he said. “I’m cautious about us owning that issue at the state level.”
First, though, one question must be answered: Will Florida find the money for what DeSantis wants to do?
“It’s going to come down to how much money is available,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.
Florida’s low national ranking for teacher pay has dogged the state for years, much to the annoyance of state leaders who often say they allocate enough funding for districts to make their own decisions about salaries.
So how did Florida get here?
Teachers, already at the low end of the national pay scale, went six years without raises after recession hit the state in 2007. Flexible state funding provided to districts dipped during that time as well, taking eight years to return to 2007 levels.
When Gov. Rick Scott took office in the middle of the financial drought, he decided schools needed to be weaned from their dependence on unsustainable money sources, such as federal aid. So he worked with lawmakers to cut state education funding by $1 billion in a year, proposing increases only when he thought the state could afford it.
Scott also approved a new requirement that teachers pay 3 percent toward their retirement funds, further reducing their take-home pay.
He then signed into law the “Student Success Act,” which eliminated long-term contracts for teachers hired after June 2011, placing them on annual contracts instead. It also required that any teachers on annual contracts rated “highly effective” receive a larger raise than any other class of teachers — including veteran teachers on the old system.
For example: Before the changes took hold, Pinellas County teachers accepted small salary bumps as they moved up the pay ladder in early years, knowing as they later approached the top of the scale the raises neared $4,500 annually.
But such an increase would break the bank under the new system because everyone on the new contract schedule with a top evaluation would have to make more. As a result, when Florida districts do give raises, the money is spread fairly evenly now.
The new law wasn’t controversial at the time it passed. It’s impact became clear only later, when teachers began to compare what they would have made a decade ago with what they are making now.
A few years later, Scott attempted to grant teachers an across-the-board raise of $2,500, but the $480 million plan didn’t work as intended when local union negotiations got in the way. Still, for several years, Democrats have filed bills to set a minimum teacher salary of $50,000, but the bills have gone nowhere.
Bryant, the St. Petersburg High teacher, couldn’t help but focus on the fact that salaries have remained nearly static over more than a decade, while the cost of living continued to rise.
Today, a 24-year Pinellas County teacher earns about 1 percent more than a 24-year teacher did in 2005, he noted.
He worried the state might be trying to push out veteran teachers, who have extra job protections in long-term contracts that allow them to speak out more.
“They don’t want us to hit 30 years retirement, I don’t think,” Bryant said, adding that he planned to stick it out because he loves his job regardless.
Brennen Pickett, a third-year English teacher at St. Petersburg High, has a different outlook.
He has an annual contract, and said he’d welcome the extra pay the governor has proposed.
He said he used to have a second job bartending. But the late nights burned him out, so he quit and just tries to get by. Sometimes that means he and his fiancée — also a teacher — must choose between a fun activity and groceries.
Pickett doesn’t support bonuses, arguing mandate-happy officials expect too much for too little. But he doesn’t plan to teach much longer. He’s already applying to grad school in a different field.
He said he used to arrive at his classroom early and stay late to do work, often bringing home papers to grade on nights, weekends and holidays.
“These days, I try not to do that,” he said. “I don’t get paid for that.”
Karen Hough, a 25th year teacher at Gaither High north of Tampa, suggested the state is approaching the issue from the wrong perspective.
A state pay scale sounds great, said Hough, who identified herself as a conservative Republican. The problem, she said, comes from politicians who toss out ideas that make good soundbites but can’t work.
Among her solutions: Pay teachers overtime and give an across-the-board raise rather than a big boost for some and nothing for others.
“We are worth more than we are paid," Hough said.
The statewide debate played out in miniature at the end of the Florida School Boards Association’s annual December meeting in Tampa.
As the conference ended, the group’s president, Tim Weisheyer of Osceola County, released a statement with the Florida superintendents’ association praising DeSantis’ pay proposal as a step toward attracting the best talent to Florida.
But it generated a tempest among some board members across the state, who said they were not consulted and didn’t necessarily agree with the position.
“I would not fully support it,” Pasco County board member Alison Crumbley said. “My answer would be, ‘Is this it?’”
Hillsborough County board member Lynn Gray suggested boards should call for a return to salaries based on years of service, degrees and other credentials.
When asked why 2020 is the year when teacher pay may take center stage, Latvala, the House lawmaker, said it’s partially a combination of the good economy and momentum created by DeSantis’ attention on the issue.
“Why not now?” he asked. “We’re going to give it our best shot.”
Teacher pay | by the numbers
Florida average (46th in the nation)
Average starting teacher salary in Florida (27th in the nation)
* 2017-18 school year
What teachers make in Tampa Bay **
** Average teacher salaries for 2018-19
Sources: National Education Association, Florida Department of Education