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DeSantis sets smart goal: Raise teacher salaries. | Editorial

The governor’s bid to raise the minimum salary by nearly $10,000 is great. The devil is in the details.
Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School during his swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. MEGAN REEVES | Times [MEGAN REEVES  |  Times]
Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School during his swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. MEGAN REEVES | Times [MEGAN REEVES | Times]
Published Oct. 8, 2019

For the first time in years, a Florida governor has a bold plan for raising teacher salaries that rank among the lowest in the nation. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to raise the minimum salary for teachers by nearly $10,000 would be an excellent start toward finally investing in public education. There are plenty of details to resolve involving both policy and politics, but the governor’s ambitious plan is an impressive opening bid for a broader discussion.

The governor rolled out his proposal at three schools Monday, ending at his alma mater, Dunedin High. The total cost of raising the minimum teacher salary to $47,500 would be $603 million, and that would raise the salaries of more than 100,000 of the state’s 170,000 teachers. “If you really prioritize something, you can figure out a way to get it done, and that’s what we’re doing here," DeSantis said. He is right, and it’s about time.

For a state that routinely dwells in the cellar of teacher pay, the governor’s proposal is wonderful news. He recognizes that the foundation of a successful classroom is a competent teacher, and good pay attracts more talent and reflects respect for the profession. But there are plenty of questions to answer. Teacher pay is set by each school district, not the state. Would this state plan provide an excellent starting salary but compress the salary range between starting teachers and the most experienced ones, which would not be particularly fair? What happens to collective bargaining between each district and its teachers’ union? And where would the state find the $600 million to pay for this when Republican legislators recoil at any hint of a tax increase?

Improving public education also is more complicated than raising minimum teacher salaries. Higher starting salaries could ease the teacher shortage and draw more qualified beginning teachers into the classroom. But the state also needs to unshackle teachers from onerous state-mandated constraints that hamstring innovation and quality instruction.

One good sign is that a close DeSantis ally, Senate budget chair Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has filed a bill to repeal the so-called Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, recognizing that it has failed in its mission. “Its purpose, to attract and reward good teachers, is certainly laudable,” Bradley said. "In practice, it has managed to frustrate many good teachers with seemingly random outcomes, and ironically it has made many good teachers feel less appreciated.” That’s a rare but refreshing acknowledgement that the Legislature isn’t perfect.

Convincing the Republican-controlled Legislature to dramatically raise minimum teacher salaries will be a heavy lift even for a popular Republican governor. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, already has responded skeptically by noting the DeSantis administration has proposed more than $2 billion in additional funding for various departments. And unlike the federal budget, the state budget is required to be balanced and cannot factor in a deficit. So the 2020-21 state budget proposed by DeSantis will be particularly illuminating, and lawmakers will have to make hard choices when the legislative session starts in January. Factor in a softening economy with projections that state revenue will be less than previously expected in the next couple of years, and the decision-making gets even tougher.

Unlike any recent governor, DeSantis has declared that significantly raising the minimum salary for teachers in Florida is a top priority. That is an unambiguous message to his Republican colleagues in the Legislature. The challenge will be working out the details -- and finding the money -- to meet the governor’s ambitious goal.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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