The map of the Tampa Bay region flashed on the television screen with numbers over each county.
For a second I thought they indicated the day's temperatures. But no.
The numbers represented each school district's unfilled teaching vacancies as students returned to school.
Forecast: high and uncertain.
The teacher shortage has grown more problematic every year. A number of factors are at play, but low salary certainly is one of the reasons school districts face this struggle. Florida's average teacher pay ranks 45th in the nation, more than $12,000 below the national average.
The Florida Education Association has asked all legislative and gubernatorial candidates to sign a pledge to only support state budgets that will raise teacher and education staff salaries to at least the national average by 2023. It's a reasonable timetable.
With all this in mind, I attended the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's recent Political Hob Nob to ask legislative candidates if they had signed the pledge or were willing to commit. Ryan Haczynski, a Strawberry Crest High teacher and education advocate — he hosts his own podcast called Teacher Voice — joined me as we quizzed candidates. Almost all agreed they would like to see teachers earn more.
But the political divide was clear. Democrats enthusiastically embraced the proposal, and several have signed the pledge or have the FEA's endorsement. Republicans, while saying they support teachers, expressed reservations.
Sen. Dana Young said she favors higher salaries for teachers, but bristled at the mention of the FEA.
I asked if she could elaborate on Tallahassee's legislative funding decisions. She responded that she paid money to the chamber to talk to voters, and if I wanted to interview her, I could call her office and schedule an appointment.
Well ... I am a voter, albeit not in her district, and I guess she thinks it's unreasonable to expect a candidate to spend three minutes discussing a critical issue.
Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, lamented that FEA officials never engage him, and as someone with a number of teachers in his family he might be swayed if they would sit down and talk. An FEA official told me they have indeed met with Harrison.
Maybe they need to start taking selfies at the meetings.
Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, spoke passionately about education reform and a market-based solution that would put teachers and students first, eliminate unnecessary administrative costs and force competition.
Grant conceded a few problems with this approach, which has emerged in part through charter schools and vouchers, but said the state should go further in supporting the GOP's definition of "choice."
He definitely came across as sincere, but his philosophical perspective didn't resonate with Haczynski, who is well versed on the state's educational issues. Haczynski said talk of breaking through the status quo overlooks the role the Legislature has played in creating the teacher shortage, low teacher pay and "starvation budgets that have left nearly all 67 school districts seeking various tax referenda to support basic operational costs."
"Perhaps more critically, however," Haczynski wrote in a follow-up email, "had the Florida Legislature the foresight to properly invest in public education, traditional public schools would have had the resources to provide all of the options parents seek, thereby rendering this market-based approach ... both unnecessary and obsolete."
Overall, I appreciated the time most of the candidates granted, and I loved having Haczynski come along. I'm tired of writing that "I love teachers" and not doing more to force the issue.
Mrs. Woodson, my fourth-grade teacher, always said that we have to "show, not tell" when writing. While most everyone says they love teachers, we need to start showing it.
Every candidate needs to be challenged regardless of party. Democrats, long the minority in Tallahassee, need to answer demands with plans for collaboration, not excuses about lacking control of the process.
We should be pushing to increase salaries not just because it'll improve the system.
It's a moral imperative.
That's all I'm saying.