As thousands of teachers gathered in Tallahassee on Monday to rally for better pay, funding and support of public education, Florida Senate Democrats took to the microphone to offer strong support for the cause.
And not just for some of them.
Rather, the caucus held a news conference to introduce legislation (SB 1854) that would improve the salaries of all public school employees with an annual cost-of-living increase, starting at 3 percent this year, plus an annual average raise of 4.5 percent over 10 years.
“Those figures get us using the same $900 million that the governor has put forward,” Democratic leader Sen. Audrey Gibson explained. “It’s pretty simple. Our plan rewards everyone and leaves no one out.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed spending $603 million to increase the state’s minimum teacher salary, and another nearly $300 for bonuses based on school testing results. While DeSantis has earned praise for making teacher pay a priority issue, he has received criticism for not addressing veteran teachers’ wages, as well as for insisting on a bonus program that educators cannot depend on from year to year.
His plan also does not do anything for other school employees, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
“They need a raise too,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said during the news conference. “The good news is, we’re talking about it. ... The devil is in the details.”
The Democrats said they hoped their legislation will help focus some of those details as the debate ensues.
The goal of improving educator pay has drawn views from several perspectives, with concerns ranging from who gets a raise to how much the raise will look like to how much money the state will allocate to the initiative. Senate Democrats have injected yet another proposal, which isn’t exactly the same as what House Democrats have suggested. (See HB 1223)
House Republicans have yet to reveal their desires, while Senate Republicans introduced bills that support DeSantis’ plan. But even they have raised concerns about a minimum salary that might not help teachers in districts that already pay that much or better.
Senate Education chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, won unanimous approval for his SB 1088 on Monday, while acknowledging that many complicated issues remain to be settled.
“We know this is probably going to be an issue that goes all the way to the end of session,” Diaz said.
The Democrats aim to remain part of the conversation all the way through.
“We do think that the governor’s proposal is a well intentioned proposal,” said Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach. “We ask for fairness across the board. ... We want to push it a little further.”
The Senate Democratic bill is not a bonus that a teacher can’t take to a mortgage company, observed Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. It’s not a mandate from Tallahassee on high, she added, noting that school boards would still be able to negotiate wages.
“It’s a simple bill that says we should pay our teachers what they are worth," Cruz said.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez is carrying the bill in the Senate. He was delayed from arriving in Tallahassee and did not make the news conference.