Duval, Clay teachers join 1,000s marching on Florida Capitol

Educators rally in support of better teacher pay, education funding come day before 2020 legislative session begins

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Teachers from Duval and Clay Counties and others from across the state thronged Florida’s Capitol on Monday to press Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.

Large crowds of demonstrators streamed into the Capitol’s main thoroughfare, some hoisting signs beseeching Florida lawmakers to "Fund our Future.''

The crowd, estimated at over 10,000, was far bigger than the governor’s own inauguration last year. It comes on the eve of the official start of the 2020 legislative session.

Marching from a variety of places in Tallahassee to the Old Capitol, these citizens came from all over the state. Duval County was well represented.

“I’m a big believer in public education. I think it’s the fabric of our country. We need it and we need it to be solid and well-funded,” said Art Mills, from Jacksonville. “Our state is under, I think, 46th in the country in teacher pay. We’re just underfunded. It shows a lack of priority, and that’s a very important topic to our future."

Florida’s protest erupted amid a wave of education activism across the country over the past two years in states such as Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

“I believe it’s really important that students of our state get what they need. And they can’t do it by themselves,” said Erica Wortherly, a licensed clinical social worker from New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in the Jacksonville area. “The teachers aren’t making enough money. And it’s the people that hold the purse that are kind of preventing our students to be all they can be.”

The popular Republican governor has made the raises a centerpiece of his $91.4 billion budget plan, which also includes significant spending on environmental programs. His agenda may wrest control of key political issues -- education and climate change -- long championed by Democrats.

On education, DeSantis is asking lawmakers to approve $600 million to boost the minimum salary of public school teachers to $47,500, which would catapult starting salaries to among the highest in the country. Another $300 million would be distributed based on merit.

But the state’s largest school union said the governor’s proposal merely gives the illusion that he is addressing problems that have long plagued public schools, such as understaffing, crumbling facilities and low morale. The union said as many as 2,400 teaching jobs remain unfilled.

“The governor says he wants to raise entry-level pay. We have any veteran teachers out there?” said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the 145,000-member Florida Education Association, to raucous cheers. “We have any custodians and bus drivers, mental health service workers, counselors? The governor’s plan does not include you.”

He was talking to educators like Bill Hudson, an engineering and design teacher at a Jacksonville-area middle school who arrived at the rally with his wife, Theresa. As a veteran teacher, he already makes less than the minimum pay the governor has promised.

“I think it’s great that the governor is trying to move the ball. I’m kind of shocked the plan wasn’t better thought out,” he said. “It seems there’s still no plan to address veteran teachers and support staff. We have teachers that have been teaching 15 years that still don’t make $47,000 a year. That’s absurd.”

Union officials said the governor’s $1 billion proposal is far short of what is needed to restore funding for traditional public schools that was lost in recent decades through budget cuts and diversion to voucher programs and charter schools.

The union is calling on the governor to increase his legislative request to $2.4 billion for the current legislative session and similar amounts annually for the rest of the decade.

The money would be used to fund 10% raises across the board -- not only for teachers but also for other school employees.

As Monday's rally extended deeper into the afternoon, the Senate Education Committee, which was meeting nearby, approved a bill that called for teacher raises but failed to include details such as a dollar amount.

“This is really a preliminary conversation,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Manny Diaz. “We know this is probably going to be an item that goes all the way through the end of session.”

Diaz acknowledged the complexity of the matter, including the possibility of pay inequities: Veteran teachers may not get pay increases and raises could differ around the state because of the varying cost of living.

“The idea of raising first-year teacher salary has many of us concerned because it means that if you are above a certain threshold you will get no raise,” said Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County teachers union.

Katz said he has been teaching in Palm Beach County for 12 years and his base salary is $47,350. He said under DeSantis’ proposal, he would get a $150 raise while a new hire’s salary would be bumped up $6,500.

Senate Democrats unveiled their own funding proposal Monday along those lines, arguing that the governor’s plan ignores veteran educators as well as non-teaching staff. Their plan would allocate the same amount of money proposed by the governor, but would spread the money across all job classifications.

“The current teacher plan put forward by the governor leaves out over 50% of the teachers in the state of Florida, does not address even additional salary for our season teachers and leaves out all of our support personnel,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson.

Officials with Duval Teachers United said the average salary for Florida teachers is $48,168, falling well below the national average of $60,477. They said low pay is causing a widespread teacher shortage in the Sunshine State. What’s more, union leaders said, Florida is ranked 43rd for total public education funding.

"They need to start investing in the traditional public schools instead of having us stack them deep and teach them cheap,” said Duval Teachers United President Terrie Brady. “This year, statewide, we had more teacher vacancies and employee vacancies throughout this state. It’s not because we can’t recruit them to come. They want to be teachers. (But) why would they come if we’re one of the lowest-paid states in the country.”

Thirteen buses and more than 70 cars carried Jacksonville-area educators and community activists to Tallahassee on Monday morning.

"Provide the funding that we need so that we can better our communities. A better community makes a strong Florida,” Duval County teacher Madge Harris-Rowland said. “I love what I do, but I want the Legislature to know that we are here. We want to be heard.”

Union officials said 17 busloads of school employees came to Tallahassee from Miami. In Polk County, about 1,600 teachers requested time off to the attend the rally, prompting state school officials to send out an email reminding educators that a concerted walkout could constitute an illegal strike.

The rally has drawn national attention, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, weighing in on Twitter.

“Florida teachers are rallying for fair pay and better funding for schools, and they won’t be intimidated or undermined,” Warren said in a tweet. "I stand with the teachers -- and I’ll fight so that teachers get the fair pay and well-funded schools they need and deserve.''

The Rev. Al Sharpton also attended the rally, as did pastors, including Elder Lee Harris, from Jacksonville.

”We’re just here to let the Legislature, let the governor, let everyone, let American know that our children are important," Harris said. “As my sign says, ‘Whatever we do unto the least of these, our children, matters.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

DeSantis was in Jacksonville on Monday morning to announce a college funding program, returning to the capital in the afternoon.

A legislative committee was expected to begin taking up the governor’s school funding proposal Monday afternoon. The $1 billion funding request already has drawn scrutiny from fiscally conservative members within DeSantis’ own party.

When the governor unveiled his proposed budget last fall, he declared it the "year of the teacher.''

The governor is strongly supporting Florida’s teachers, especially younger ones that face the greatest challenges in the classroom, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said. "To suggest otherwise is an unfortunate disconnect with reality.''

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