A new bill that would raise the statewide minimum annual salary for Florida public school teachers to $50,000 is once again making its way through the state senate.
This is the third year that State Senator Kevin Rader has proposed the bill in the Senate. He previously proposed it four times as a member of the House. Each time, the bill was shot down by the Republican-controlled legislature. He can only hope that the seventh time is the charm.
“I hope that this is a priority of the Senate and the House; to raise the salaries of our most important public servants,” says Rader. “It’s tough to make a living,” he says of the low salaries of Florida public school teachers. “You don’t attract the best and the brightest. They go to other states. They don’t have room for great advancement, and you have higher turnover.”
The Florida Senate remains dominated by Republicans much as it has been for the last 20 years. The balance of power stands at 23 to 17 in the Senate and 73 to 47 in the House.
But there have been some recent gains in the fight for better pay for Florida teachers. In April, Broward voters approved a property tax that granted county teachers a six percent raise. And during November's midterm elections, Miami-Dade County constituents approved a property tax referendum that will raise $232 million for county schools, with eighty-eight percent of those funds going toward salary increases for teachers.
It’s not news to many Floridians that public school teachers have been living on too little for too long. For the 198,717 instructional staff in Florida public schools during the 2017-2018 school year, the average annual salary was $45,666, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Florida ranks 29th in education according to a 2018 report by USA Today . The report cites low taxable resources being directed to education — only 2.7 percent in Florida, compared to the national average of 3.3 percent — as a reason for low pay rates.
Teacher salaries differ by county and can vary based on education level, experience, and local cost of living. There is currently no statewide minimum salary for teachers, who bottom out at the state’s minimum wage of $8.25 per hour.
Rader believes that part of the reason teacher salaries have remained low is because Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature has made is easy for charter schools to draw money away from public schools.
Florida’s base student allocation was $4,203.95 for each pupil during the 2017-2018 school year, according to Politifact Florida. But that money is not evenly disbursed. It can vary from county to county and from student to student. And it cannot be used for teacher raises.
So where is the money going? Public schools have to report in detail how all funds are spent. They also have to report student performance. Charter schools, which now educate about 10 percent of Florida students, do not.
“We’ve given an enormous amount of money to charter schools, and they have shown that they fail,” Rader says. “When you get down to it, there’s a lot of bad financial management. We give this money to charter schools with no strings attached, no parameters on how well the school does.”
A September 2018 report by the watchdog agency Integrity Florida seems to support Rader’s statement. The report states that charter schools draw money away from public schools in a variety of ways and have spent more than $21 million on lobbying to influence state education policy.
The report shows that of the 650 charter schools opened in Florida since 1996, 373 have closed their doors. And when the school closes or the students re-enroll in public schools, the charter schools retain the paid funds.
“They’ve created this charter school movement and it’s been a colossal failure when it comes to dollars and cents," Rader says.
Report co-author Ben Wilcox says that limited funds force public schools to cut corners by paying low wages and eliminating programs such as art and music in an effort to cover overhead costs and provide mandated classes.
Conversely, charter schools can spend money, or not spend it, any way they choose. “Charter schools are only accountable to their board,” says Wilcox. “They’re not accountable to the local school district.”
In the last gubernatorial election, Democrat Andrew Gillum supported raising the minimum starting salary for teachers. But Gillum lost, and many believe that winner Ron DeSantis will appoint former State House Speaker Richard Corcoran as the new commissioner of education. Corcoran is an outspoken advocate of charter schools and would likely throw a wrench in any possibility of passing the bill.
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Still, State Senate President Bill Galvano has not publicly ruled out considering the bill. Katie Betta, Galvano’s Deputy Chief of Staff, says that Galvano was against funding the minimum wage increase if it required increasing corporate taxes.
Betta says that Galvano plans to review the bill in the coming days and refer it to the Senate committee for vetting. “It’s not appropriate for him [to voice an opinion] before he’s even referenced the bill or it has had the opportunity to be considered by other senators,” Betta says of Galvano’s stance on the bill. “He doesn’t typically, in practice, give his personal thoughts.”
Rader thinks that the reason the bill has not passed has nothing to do with funding. “An enormous amount of money goes to our general revenue,” he says. “If it’s not a priority of the president of the senate, the speaker of the house, or of the governor, it will not happen.”
Rader remains dedicated to getting Florida public school teachers the money he says they deserve. "How you pay teachers who teach the next generation of our society, our youth, to be ready to take over the economy in all facets — finance, non-profits, social sciences, foster care — is the whole gamut of our economic system in Florida," he says.