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Opinion
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Guest Column
Florida should reward, not antagonize, its veteran teachers | Column
The starting pay is fine, but bad state law drives its best, seasoned teachers out of the profession.
Caught in the middle of a lesson with her fifth-grade student Erick Gathe-Lozano, left, Pinellas teacher of the year, Eisenhower Elementary School teacher Sarah Painter, reacts as she finds out she is one of five finalists for Florida Teacher of the Year during a surprise announcement on May 6, 2021, in her classroom at the school in Clearwater.
Caught in the middle of a lesson with her fifth-grade student Erick Gathe-Lozano, left, Pinellas teacher of the year, Eisenhower Elementary School teacher Sarah Painter, reacts as she finds out she is one of five finalists for Florida Teacher of the Year during a surprise announcement on May 6, 2021, in her classroom at the school in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 9
Updated Jun. 9

A new teacher with a bachelor’s degree made $47,500 in Pinellas County this year. That’s a pretty good starting salary, but that teacher earned every penny in educating our students — in the classroom and on-line — during the worst pandemic in a century. Teachers with a little more seasoning work just as hard, and their experience makes them more effective. But they don’t fare so well. I’ll explain in a minute.

Over the past 15 months, lawmakers have been appropriately singing educators’ praises in public. But privately, they are dismantling public education and undermining our teachers.

Nancy Velardi
Nancy Velardi [ Handout ]

For the past decade, policy and funding surrounding public education has slowly deteriorated, causing teacher and staff shortages. Many classes are taught by full-time substitutes — an oxymoron if ever there was. Florida’s funding for public schools continues to rank near the bottom in the nation — 43rd out of the 50 states.

While changes to funding have increased the pay of our beginning teachers, veteran teachers aren’t doing so well. Florida’s average teacher pay is among the worst in the nation, 49 out of 50 in a recent report by Business Insider. Over that same 10-year period, the laws dictating teacher pay have increased from about 350 words to over 1,700 words. That is nearly 1,400 more words of regulation and bureaucracy that direct districts on how to pay their teachers, removing local control almost totally.

It should not take a team of statisticians and accountants creating a complex algebraic equation to determine teacher pay. We all know experience matters. Just like seeking out the most experienced doctor or home builder, parents want their children to have teachers who are experienced. Yet, Florida law intentionally keeps veteran teacher pay low, demanding that veteran teachers’ salary increases be at least 25 percent less than those of beginning teachers on annual contracts.

Remember that reasonably well-paid beginning teacher? Well, in Pinellas, a teacher with 12 years of experience is paid just $1,033 more than a teacher just entering the profession.

How can this be? It’s the difference between a professional contract and an annual contract. A professional contract is a continuing agreement between the district and the teacher. An annual contract must be renewed each year, which means a teacher can be let go for no reason; the contract is simply not renewed.

With the current salary law in place, the difference in pay between rookie and established teachers will diminish and even reverse as the years increase. For example, if we calculate a 2% raise every year for the next 10 years, the newer teacher at year 8 will make $1,049 more than the veteran teacher with 20 years’ experience. (That is, if that newer teacher’s contract has been renewed year after year, and that’s no sure thing.) If we continue down that path, when the veteran teacher is retiring at 30 years, he will be making $4,163 less than his young colleague, who now has 18 years in the profession.

Florida has unfair salary laws for teachers, which are meant to entice veteran educators to surrender their professional contract and jump to the annual contract. In return, they could receive larger pay increases, but can be let go at any time even if they have highly effective evaluation ratings.

Worse still, these new laws could drive great teachers and staff out of the profession entirely. Experienced teachers have a huge impact on student learning, as well as being invaluable in training newer educators. Their departure from the profession will be yet another devastating blow to public education. A teacher needs several years to become truly proficient, and it makes no sense to lose those teachers just as they are hitting their stride.

Decisions made by non-educators in the political arena have slowly been erasing the input of teachers, administrators, staff, and parents – the people who know the child’s needs best. This new law regarding teacher pay is the latest in a long line of affronts to local control and expertise.

Lawmakers can fix the laws. Contact your School Board members today and tell them to work with teachers and staff to address these issues. Contact your state representative and state senator and tell them you are counting on them to correct these overbearing and unrealistic laws. Stand with our students and our public educators. We need you more than ever before to protect the future of our community and our state.

Nancy Velardi took office as the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association in July 2020 after 20 years as an English teacher at Pinellas Park High School.