Teacher pay ‘vehicle’ starts moving forward

Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr. said the bill approved Monday (SB 1088) will be the “vehicle” in the Senate for teacher pay proposals.
Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr. said the bill approved Monday (SB 1088) will be the “vehicle” in the Senate for teacher pay proposals. (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As teachers rallied outside Florida’s Capitol, the Senate Education Committee on Monday approved a bill that could be a first step toward increasing pay for public school teachers.

While discussions over teacher compensation remain nascent in the Legislature, the issue has started to gain traction following Gov. Ron DeSantis vow to make 2020 the “year of the teacher.”

To keep that promise, DeSantis has asked state lawmakers to approve about $900 million in pay initiatives, which include setting a minimum salary of $47,500 for teachers and creating a new $300 million bonus program for teachers and principals.

Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr. said the bill approved Monday (SB 1088) will be the “vehicle” in the Senate for teacher pay proposals. The measure, he added, is “purposely left open” to encourage discussions on how to best carry out the governor’s plan or any other teacher compensation proposal.

“I believe that this is all going to depend on how much money we have, and we don’t make that decision at this committee,” Diaz, R-Hialeah, said.

Diaz said he would like to see money distributed equitably across the state, considering there are different starting salaries and costs of living for each school district. Diaz’s proposal does not address how the money would be distributed, but it would allow “maximum flexibility” for salary negotiations.

His bill says school districts would be able to use money from a “teacher salary enhancement allocation” to boost teacher pay.

Democratic and Republican members of the education committee were encouraged to see Diaz’s proposal get a hearing Monday, the day before the start of this year’s legislative session.

“To me it is a bright day when we are discussing up to $900 million in teacher salaries. I know the devil is in the details, but this is the first step and I appreciate you taking this initiative,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is a former Leon County superintendent of schools.

But that does not necessarily mean Senate Democrats are in support of the governor’s plan.

An hour before Diaz’ bill was heard in the committee, Democrats unveiled their own pay proposal, which would offer a salary boost to all teachers and public-school staff members in the state.

Using the same $900 million proposed by the governor, the Democrats’ plan (SB 1854) would offer pay raises for cafeteria workers, bus drivers, librarians, guidance counselors and pre-kindergarten teachers, not just classroom teachers.

Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said the proposal addresses the “mistakes” in the governor’s plan, which, by focusing on setting a minimum salary, would leave out almost 100,000 veteran teachers, she said.

“The fatal flaw in the governor’s plan is its shortsightedness. No successful business would ignore rewarding loyal, veteran employees while almost exclusively raising the salaries of new ones,” Gibson said in a statement.

“It’s demoralizing and counterproductive,” Gibson said.

Democrats are proposing an average pay increase next year of 7.5 percent. The increase would be divided into two parts: an annual 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment and a pay increase averaging 4.5 percent that would be doled out by school districts through the collective bargaining process.

As the teacher-pay proposals were considered, thousands of educators rallied outside the Capitol, where they complained about inadequate pay and a general disrespect for their profession from the Legislature.

Florida ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay, with an average salary of $48,168, according to the National Education Association’s annual report of average teacher salaries for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The national average teacher salary was $60,462, according to the report.

“We are really not treated like professionals anymore. We are more like task managers in the classroom,” said Lucy Baez, a language arts teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School.

Baez added it is “demoralizing” to see how teachers are treated in the state.

During the Senate Education Committee meeting, some educators echoed concerns over inadequate teacher pay and raised issues with the governor’s plan.

Justin Katz, the president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, said the governor’s plan has the potential of sowing “division in schools” as some veteran teachers would be making the same as new teachers.

“I can tell you personally that after teaching for almost 12 years in Palm Beach County, my current base salary is $47,350. Under the current proposal being floated for the governor, I would get a $150 raise,” Katz said.

“If you exclude certain people,” he said. “It leads to division."

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