TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday proposed $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for all full-time public school teachers, a bold move that would help the pocketbooks of 168,000 educators but also shrink a small projected budget surplus and potentially pit one public employee group against others.
Scott trumpeted the pay raise plan in a visit to a middle school near Orlando, where he emphasized that the $480 million in raises is in addition to an as-yet unspecified boost in public school funding next year.
Teachers were quick to note that it was Scott who championed a 3 percent cut in teacher pay last year in the form of a pension contribution.
Scott will flesh out his budget recommendations next week.
"I can think of no better investment for our state than investing in those teachers who work on the front line of Florida's future every day by teaching our children," Scott said in prepared remarks.
Scott, who as a candidate in 2010 emphasized parental choice and expanded charter schools, has become a public education evangelist in recent months.
"I've traveled the state and I've talked to teachers," said Scott, who often speaks of his daughter's work as a teacher of special needs students. "They're working tirelessly to make sure our students have achievement. I'm very appreciative of what our teachers do."
Florida teachers on average earn about $46,000 a year, 46th among states, $10,000 less than the national average and less than their peers in Georgia, a state that has effectively recruited teachers to cross the state line for more pay.
Scott's plan for raises would eat up a chunk of a tentative projected budget surplus.
Florida's team of economists estimates that the state will carry over $2.1 billion in unspent money into next year, but some of that money will have to pay for unmet needs such as the federal Affordable Care Act and a possible decline in property values, which help pay for day-to-day public school operations.
Scott's raises would also have to battle with other programs seeking money that have advocates in the Legislature, which writes the budget.
Medicaid case loads continue to swell, state universities will seek $300 million just to make up for a cut in the current budget, public school enrollment is on the rise, and school districts have asked for $100 million for increased security.
Mindful of those and other demands for state dollars, lawmakers reacted cautiously to Scott's pay raise plan with some noting that state workers have not had a raise in six years.
"I think teachers are some government workers who deserve to have better compensation," said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "But I know corrections officers. I know highway patrolmen . . . and six years is a long time to wait."
Gaetz said other Scott priorities could get less money "to fund this most recent priority."
"There's very little new money," Gaetz said.
Scott may face resistance from Republicans who fervently believe that pay raises should be directly tied to performance, not dished out automatically.
"We applaud the governor's efforts to increase money in education funding," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "The method of the increase is just as important. . . . Part of it should be (based on) performance."
The first bill Scott signed as governor, SB 736, eliminated teacher tenure and added a merit pay plan tied to student achievement on standardized tests. Scott says he remains a merit pay supporter, but two years later, the state has put no money in the program and teachers are fighting it in court.
The Florida Education Association, a teacher union, sued, claiming the bill eliminates the right for teachers to bargain collectively.
FEA president Andy Ford called pay raises "a step in the right direction" and noted that teachers lost another 2 percent of their buying power when federal Social Security and Medicare tax breaks ended this month.
"This begins to repair the damage that has been done to our students and those who work in our schools," Ford said.
Miami-Dade schools superintendent Albert Carvalho praised Scott for recognizing that teachers are "the driving force behind our recent success in improving student achievement," but added: "Compensation is a two-sided coin comprised of salary and benefits, and the increasing cost of health care is draining school districts."
Teacher union leaders remain skeptical of Scott's motives.
Hernando County Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo said it could be divisive to single out teachers for raises and exclude others, such as guidance counselors and media specialists, not to mention other public employees.
"He's throwing money out there to have people fight over it like scraps," Vitalo said.
Times/Herald staff writers Toluse Olorunnipa and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.