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Three major failings in Florida | Editorial
What’s the future hold without insurance, teachers or nurses?
 
Public schools in Florida were down 9,500 teachers, para-professionals and staff at the beginning of the school year in August.
Public schools in Florida were down 9,500 teachers, para-professionals and staff at the beginning of the school year in August. [ MIAMI HERALD | Miami Herald ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 21, 2022

What’s the future for a state with large numbers of children left uninsured, that doesn’t have enough teachers to educate its students and that can’t train enough nurses to care for an aging population? Those are questions that Floridians should ponder after three concerning reports on the Sunshine State.

Uninsured children. A new report on child health insurance found that Florida remains one of the nation’s worst in providing health coverage for its kids. While the percentage of Florida children without health insurance fell during the pandemic (because the federal government expanded Medicaid), the state still ranks among the bottom 10 nationally. Some 7.3 percent of Florida children were uninsured in 2021, according to the study by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. That’s significantly higher than the national rate of 5.4%.

Florida could address this problem any number of ways, from loosening the income requirements to obtain coverage through Florida Kid Care (as most other states do with their own programs) to expanding public outreach and reducing administrative barriers to ensure that those who qualify get enrolled. This is especially true for helping harder-hit populations, such as Latinos and the poor, for whom language, transportation and technology barriers make enrolling all the more difficult.

Teacher vacancies. Florida schools are chronically short of teachers, and many of the solutions being floated — from larger class sizes to relying on instruction from less qualified aides — move in the wrong direction. The question here is whether education is a priority, whether teachers are valued and what Florida’s workforce will look like if students emerge unprepared.

School districts throughout the Tampa Bay area entered this academic year with hundreds of vacant positions, with so-called “permanent” substitutes plugging the gaps. No wonder; the pay isn’t great, the environment is tough and political partisans have made teachers punching bags. And students faced with online courses and a revolving set of instructors are paying the price. Two areas of biggest need — English and math — are key to Florida’s continued growth as a global market. Patchwork strategies are no substitute for higher pay, better support and stronger working conditions. The teachers leaving the profession have been saying this for years.

Nursing shortage. Florida’s nursing shortage is acute, and its system for training them is broken. That’s dire for a state that sells itself as a haven for retirees and as an epicenter of world-class clinical care and research. Every year, according to a new report from the Florida Center for Nursing, thousands of nursing school graduates fail to pass the national licensing exam, at a rate higher than anywhere else in the nation. It’s a distressing omen for a state already struggling with an unprecedented shortage of nurses, and it threatens to rock hospitals, nursing homes and other major care providers as Florida’s population ages.

The good news is that not all Florida nursing programs are failing; most of the state’s public universities, community colleges and nonprofit institutions have pass rates at or above the national average. The problem lies with some private, for-profit programs that have pass rates below 50%. Florida is producing more nurses than ever before, but it’s not keeping up with soaring demand. The trick is to focus the state’s resources on what works, expanding capacity and support for programs that succeed in helping more students over the finish line. Unless the state reverses this trend, experts project that Florida will be short of nearly 60,000 nurses by 2035. Imagine the impact on patients and the health care system.

These aren’t Florida’s only three problems, but they share a common thread. All are core societal issues. All have been evident for years. All pose serious consequences to Florida’s quality of life, ability to compete and prospects for future growth. And the trend lines are pointing downward.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.