It is called the Florida Story -- a tale of how back in 1999, a no-nonsense governor imposed efficiency and accountability on a self-indulgent and lethargic education bureaucracy, transforming one of the nation’s worst public school systems into one of its best.
I’ve told the Florida Story often, both as a newspaper columnist and then as a writer for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Ever since leaving office, Bush has pushed his Florida reforms as a national model.
The successes certainly are impressive on a spreadsheet. Results on highly regarded federal tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), show Florida’s students making strong gains in reading and math, often far in advance of their peers in other states.
The high school graduation rate is up despite more strenuous academic requirements. The state now ranks among the top nationally in the number of graduating high schoolers passing Advanced Placement classes.
What attracted me to the cause was that historically disadvantaged students have made the most progress.
But reforms didn’t implement themselves. Their success depended on teachers. And while they may have hated the high-stakes testing, the micromanaging of their classrooms, the standardization of their jobs and the endless reams of paperwork, they made it all work.
They held up their end of the bargain, and the state of Florida most certainly did not. Teacher raises often didn’t cover the cost of living. In lieu of raises, they would get bonuses that couldn’t be counted on from one year to the next and were left out of pension calculations. One ridiculous scheme denied some of our best teachers bonuses because of their scores on college entrance exams taken decades earlier in high school.
Unfortunately, part of the reform message is that more spending doesn’t equal better results. And so it’s not surprising that Florida is a bottom dweller nationally in education funding, which translates to teacher salaries. In 2017-18, Florida teachers ranked 47th nationally in pay, according to federal statistics.
And when you calculate in the Consumer Price Index, Florida teachers now make 11 percent less than they did in 1999, according to federal statistics. That year traces back to the very start of the reform movement in Florida. If an outside observer looked at the treatment of Florida teachers during the past 21 years, she’d conclude: “Boy, they must have really screwed up to deserve this.”
Instead, they have done their jobs better than teachers in almost any other state. Better than in New York, where teachers have earned a CPI-adjusted increase of 11.8 percent since 1999, and California, where teachers have earned a 16.1 percent increase.
Not surprisingly, Florida teachers are bailing out of classrooms, creating what officially has been designated a crisis. There is a shortage of teachers in general science, English, math, physical science, reading, technical education and so on. In other words, all the subjects that determine whether a student will succeed in life.
Call it a coincidence, but the state’s NAEP scores took a dive last year. You can’t do this without teachers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to halt the exodus is spending $600 million to raise the minimum teacher pay to $47,500. This would rank Florida, the nation’s education cheapskate, second nationally in starting pay. DeSantis says more than 100,000 of the state’s 170,000 teachers would get a raise.
It is an eye-popping bit of make-up. But interestingly enough, it leaves out the veteran teachers responsible for making the Florida Story happen. They get nothing.
There is enough money in DeSantis’ proposal to attract and retain new teachers, and to also pay veterans the money they that’s long overdue. It’s just a matter of calculating a more equitable distribution.
The message from DeSantis’ plan is very clear. Veteran teachers are disposable. And if I were a new or incoming teacher, I’d think long and hard about that before deciding to make my career in a Florida classroom.
Mike Thomas is a freelance writer, former columnist for the Orlando Sentinel and former communications specialist with the Foundation for Excellence in Education.