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Why is Florida suddenly bullish on teacher pay? Big business is on board.

“Teacher salaries are too low,” one business leader said. “We feel like it’s a critical issue.”
Thousands of Florida teachers and their supporters rallied in Tallahassee last month, a show of momentum for raising teacher pay in the state. In contrast to previous years, Florida business leaders have been more vocal in joining the call for teacher raises.
Thousands of Florida teachers and their supporters rallied in Tallahassee last month, a show of momentum for raising teacher pay in the state. In contrast to previous years, Florida business leaders have been more vocal in joining the call for teacher raises. [ PHIL SEARS | Associated Press ]
Published Feb. 8, 2020|Updated Feb. 8, 2020

Giving raises to Florida teachers is not a new idea.

Teachers have been lobbying lawmakers for better pay — not bonuses — for years. Democrats have proposed boosting the minimum salary to $50,000 since 2015.

Most often, their voices have stood alone.

In 2020, though, some of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state are joining the chorus: those representing the business community.

Chris Corr
Chris Corr [ Courtesy of Chris Corr ]

“If we want the best, most dedicated teachers for our children, we need to pay them enough to want to enter and stay in the classroom,” north Florida developer Chris Corr, also chairman of the Council of 100, wrote in a recent column that circulated across the state.

His piece came shortly after the council, a nonpartisan group that represents some of Florida’s most influential business and civic leaders, released a 48-page report detailing its long-term education vision for the state.

One of the top stated needs: an “outstanding teacher” in front of every student.

“We must have quality instruction if we want quality results,” the group’s plan intoned.

Related: Business group offers 20-year education plan for Florida

It’s not first time big business has stepped up in this way.

More than two decades ago, as Miami-Dade’s business community explored ideas to boost that community’s industries, leaders quickly determined that no initiative would find long-term success without a strong education system as the foundation. And that included excellent, well-paid teachers.

But back then, the private sector push to improve educators’ salaries wasn’t loud. Nor was it in 2013, when Rick Scott also promoted raises while governor.

Today, it is.

What’s the difference?

Craig Richard, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, suggests the state is at a critical juncture when it comes to attracting and retaining good teachers.

Craig Richard
Craig Richard [ Tampa Bay Economic Development Council ]

Teachers in other states, including some that pay better than Florida, have begun striking over pay and work conditions, Richard explained. Florida law forbids teacher strikes, but recent rallies have shown how frustrated the current group has become.

Many are leaving the profession, noted Richard, who said he knows the challenges firsthand because his wife is a public school teacher.

At the same time, the number of college and university students entering the profession stands at near-historic lows. Something must occur to reverse the trend, Richard said.

“The old adage that you get what you pay for is true in education as well,” he said. “It’s hard to recruit and keep good teachers if you are not paying them.”

Many, including Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning, pointed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ full-throated support as one reason for the momentum. The governor, who enjoys higher approval ratings than his predecessor, wants to pour nearly $1 billion into bigger teacher paychecks and bonuses.

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The issue has “taken on a new weight of importance because the governor has said, ‘I want teacher pay increases,’” said Browning, who heads the state superintendents’ association.

In his State of the State address, DeSantis repeated his call for boosting Florida’s minimum teacher salary to $47,500, shortly after speaking of the need to have strong schools as a way to maintain a healthy business climate that produces “top-flight talent.”

That issue of talent is another key argument. And it’s not brand new.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, for instance, took a strong stance on that need before DeSantis was elected, when the Constitution Revision Commission looked into a proposed ballot question to raise teacher salaries to the national average. Florida TaxWatch and the Council of 100 also strongly backed the concept.

Today, the chamber continues to press for 100 percent of the state’s third-graders to be reading at or above grade level by 2030, a significant increase from today’s 58 percent. That’s because the quality of the workforce is paramount to attracting major corporations, said chamber spokeswoman Edie Ousley.

“When it comes to economic development, talent has already replaced the tax incentive as the number one most important tool in an economic developer’s toolkit,” Ousley said in a statement that echoed chamber president Mark Wilson’s comments from 2017 and 2018.

It’s important for keeping companies in the state, as well as for luring them here. It even matters for sectors like the military. In Escambia County, for instance, base leaders have complained that it’s hard to get families to move to the Naval Air Station near Pensacola because of concerns about poor schooling.

“We’ve long supported efforts to attract and retain great teachers, and appreciate Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature for putting a strong focus on teacher pay,” Ousley said.

Council of 100 executive director Bob Ward noted his organization spent nearly three years studying where Florida education needs to go. The effort included visits to 22 schools.

One of the common themes that emerged was the importance of having the right school team.

“If you didn’t get the teacher in the classroom and you didn’t get a leader moving the school forward, you tended not to see a school progress,” he observed.

And talking to teachers, the group quickly saw the need to refortify the profession. As part of that, pay matters.

“Teacher salaries are too low,” Ward said. “We feel like it’s a critical issue.”

Lawmakers are seeing it, too, after years of tending to other priorities. It’s a particular concern in communities where teachers can’t afford the cost of living.

Like Miami and the Keys.

Sen. Anitere Flores, the Republicans’ deputy majority leader, represents both areas. The school districts there have considered building housing for teachers on school district property because many can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods where they teach.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, says "the stars have aligned" for a teacher pay raise in Florida.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, says "the stars have aligned" for a teacher pay raise in Florida. [ Associated Press (2016) ]

“When we talk about low-income housing, we don’t use the words ‘low-income housing’ anymore," Flores said. "We’ve transitioned to calling it ‘workforce housing,’ because the reality is we’re talking about working professionals who can’t afford to pay a mortgage.”

She has served in the Legislature since 2004, and has seen teacher pay be discussed time and time again. But this year feels different.

“I do think the stars have aligned,” Flores said, citing support from the business community and a popular governor in addition to teachers and unions — all with a big election on the horizon. “I feel pretty good about getting it done this year.”


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