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DeSantis signs teacher pay raises into Florida law with bipartisan support

Despite plummeting state revenue from the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed into law a $500 million plan to boost the minimum salary for all teachers toward $47,500.

Plenty of decisions about Florida’s budget remain undecided.

But the question of whether public school teachers will get the raises that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for is now settled. They will.

Surrounded by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, DeSantis on Wednesday signed into law a $500 million plan to boost the minimum salary for all teachers toward $47,500.

“It was quite a challenge to make sure that even though we fought for it, we would be able to do it,” DeSantis said, noting the economic changes that have occurred since lawmakers passed the measure in March. “I can report ... this will be there 100 percent. We’re going to have to make tough choices, but this is important.”

“The bill we’re signing today is going to be really great for the teachers of Florida.” DeSantis said at Mater Academy Charter School in Hialeah Gardens, where he signed HB 641, a bill setting aside $400 million to raise the minimum teacher salary and $100 million to raise the pay of veteran teachers and other instructional personnel like librarians and guidance counselors.

The bill landed on DeSantis’ desk last Wednesday.

Senate President Bill Galvano said it was a challenge to get the bill passed. And after the advent of COVID-19, getting it to the finish line was even more questionable, added Senate Appropriations chairman Rob Bradley, who praised DeSantis for making good on his promise. The law ensures that Florida goes from 26th to fifth for minimum teacher pay, they said.

“He said this is going to be the year of the teacher,” Bradley said. “Promise made, promise kept. Today, it’s happening. The year of the teacher is a reality.”

Related: Florida’s $500 million teacher raise plan gets mixed reviews

The $93.2 billion state budget, which has still not yet been signed by the governor, includes $500 million for the teacher pay raises. DeSantis initially requested $600 million for raises, and another $300 million for bonuses.

Lawmakers never were set to give him the full amount. But they discussed including the $600 million, until concerns about the growing coronavirus pandemic convinced them to stick with the lower level when finalizing the budget in mid-March.

DeSantis initially proposed that teacher salaries be raised to a minimum of $47,500, but that number won’t become law as part of this bill. Instead, the bill states that school districts and charter schools should get as close as possible to that number based on the funding provided.

The plan benefits K-12 classroom teachers who earn less than that salary, while not providing as much for longtime teachers who make more. It does not offer the added base to non-classroom educators such as counselors and instructional coaches.

The amount each district will receive is calculated based roughly on enrollment, but the state does not dictate many of the details. How the money is distributed will be hashed out on the bargaining table between districts and teachers’ unions. Once they come to an agreement, they are to send a report detailing the results to the Florida Department of Education.

The proposal also eliminates the controversial Best and Brightest program that paid bonuses to thousands of educators. The program drew criticism because some thought its criteria was unfair and that the one-time nature of bonus money was not reliable year after year.

Lawmakers used the nearly $300 million from the Best and Brightest budget to pay for a large portion of the raise plan.

Related: How will Florida’s teacher raises work? We answer your questions.

In the past week, DeSantis had faced some pressure to walk away from the pledge for teacher raises.

Florida TaxWatch, a think tank that espouses small government spending, called on the governor to delay the $500 million program. When asked — repeatedly — about the expense, DeSantis hedged.

“Teacher raises are important,” he said a week ago. “I said I’m going to veto some things in my budget, I’m not going to veto everything in my budget.”

But on Wednesday he made clear how vital the idea was to his priorities for the state.

“It was not something that a lot of people thought necessarily could get done,” he said. “We really thought it was important to do that.”

Florida Education Association vice president Andrew Spar praised the bill signing as a positive step.

He noted that the National Education Association’s annual salary rankings came out recently, and without the measure Florida’s average teacher pay dropped a spot, to 47th in the nation.

At the same time, teachers have worked hard to keep classes running throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to distance learning with almost no notice. And they’ll be asked to continue as state leaders look to schools reopening as a key to economic recovery.

“We know that our public schools right now are going to struggle at the beginning of the school year,” Spar said. “It’s going to be important that the state continues to do anything it can to retain and recruit teachers. This would be a good signal, to honor this commitment the Legislature made even during this difficult time.”

The news did not go over well with everyone, though. In particular, veteran teachers took to social media to say they didn’t appreciate their years of service being discounted while new teachers earn salaries so close to what it took them years to make.

“I am very disappointed in the state of Florida and the way teachers are treated. ... Veteran teachers have sacrificed so much over the years,” said Helen Fatolitis, a 30-year kindergarten teacher at Tarpon Springs Elementary School. “I’m just frustrated.”

One Democratic lawmaker said she was glad DeSantis didn’t veto the measure. But she, too, had more in mind, including for the veteran teachers.

“We’ve got to do better,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

School district leaders have said they can get teacher pay much closer to the $47,500 mark that DeSantis sought, if the state budget remains intact. They also said they should be able to get a percentage to the teachers who already earn more than the base.

They have raised concerns, though, that the spending plan might be set in the fall, only to be cut in the winter, after elections occur and if revenue does not rebound.

Also in attendance Wednesday were Senate Education Appropriations chair Kelli Stargel, term-limited Senator Anitere Flores and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Miami-Dade School Board chairwoman Perla Tabares-Hantman joined the lawmakers on stage.

Times staff writer Emily L. Mahoney, and Miami Herald staff writers Colleen Wright and Samantha Gross, contributed to this story.

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