Gov. Ron DeSantis’ $900 million teacher pay and bonus plan sparks wide range of questions. Critics say it’s flawed.
TALLAHASSEE — Ron DeSantis’ push to pour $900 million into raising minimum teacher salaries backed by bonuses amounts to an out-of-the box move by a Republican governor in a state where his party is often accused of starving public schools.
But DeSantis now faces a fight to make sure his nearly $1 billion dollar plan doesn’t turn into a bust.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has been quick to poke big holes in the offer, with similar criticism echoing from the union’s Democratic allies in the Legislature.
Many of DeSantis’ fellow Republicans also seemed to choke on the price-tag of the election-year teacher spending plan, a key part of the $91.4 billion state budget proposal rolled out Monday at the Capitol.
Meanwhile, across the state, the idea is drawing shrugs. Or worse.
"This is a cockamamie plan," said Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association, which is not affiliated with the FEA. "The minimum salary won’t do anything for a lot of veteran teachers and forget about the bonus plan — hey, you can’t put what you earn in a bonus on a mortgage application."
Danielle Thomas of the Florida PTA also wasn’t impressed.
"We’re encouraged the governor is talking about teacher pay and looking to take steps toward improving it, but we want to see all our teachers reach the national average when it comes to pay. And this doesn’t come near that," said Thomas, legislation chair for the PTA and a former Volusia County teacher.
Still, just as DeSantis’ pay plan is an unusual step for a fiscally conservative Republican leader, the Democratic-allied FEA also appears willing to move out of its usual lane in an effort to get a better deal from the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The union contributed $30,000 last month to the political spending committee of Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, in what could be an effort to recruit Republican supporters in its struggle to revamp the DeSantis proposal when the Legislature convenes in January.
DeSantis wants to push minimum teacher salaries in Florida to $47,500, second only to New Jersey among the states for base pay. And he also is calling for teacher bonuses ranging from $500 to $7,500 based on school grade improvements, with principals in line for one-time awards of between $1,250 and $10,000.
The National Education Association reported the average starting salary for Florida teachers in 2017-18 was $37,636. So DeSantis’s bid would be a big step for those on the lowest wrong.
But it would have little effect in most urban Florida counties, where salaries already approach or surpass these levels. Veteran teachers, whose salaries climb with experience, also would be largely bypassed, critics said.
Florida’s average salary for public school teachers is $48,168, ranking the state 46th among the states and District of Columbia, according to the NEA. The national average was $60,477 last year, so the PTA’s push to have Florida reach that level would mean a major increase of dollars.
In Florida, talk of pay raises is born out of crisis, with many counties wrestling with a teacher shortage that the governor predicts would ease with the promise of more pay.
DeSantis said that under his plan, 101,000 teachers in Florida would get an immediate raise, while the increase also would send a message that could draw more instructors into the profession.
"It will have a really meaningful impact in terms of recruiting and retaining folks," DeSantis said at the Capitol.
But many in education challenge the approach.
They want DeSantis to scrap the bonus pay idea — one veteran educator likened bonuses to "tips" — and pour both it and the pay plan into boosting the base student allocation (BSA) in the governor’s budget recommendation to the Legislature.
This base student allocation, which Florida school districts can use for student programs, teacher salaries and other costs, is increased by a relatively modest, $50 per-student in DeSantis’s proposed budget to lawmakers, down from the current year when it was bumped up $75 per-student.
The FEA is pushing to rocket that base student allocation by $614 per-child — giving districts much more authority in spending, including how they offer salary increases. FEA officials have been traveling the state by bus for the past five weeks, promoting the union’s "Our Decade of Progress" plan, which would dramatically increase public school dollars.
Any massive injection of cash into schools isn’t likely to happen in a Legislature dominated by Republicans who for two decades have promoted private-school voucher programs and more independently minded charter schools.
A cooling economy also has House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, delivering cautious comments about the governor’s proposal.
But DeSantis’ proposal is a conversation starter, education leaders said. And some of the struggle over teacher pay will pivot on a common policy question in Tallahassee — "Who’s calling the shots?"
In the state’s school funding formula, DeSantis has proposed an overall per-student increase of $302, an almost 4% boost, but which also largely directs counties in how they must spend state dollars: on school security, mental health assistance, transportation and more, including the teacher pay raises and bonuses.
FEA and many educators want counties to have bigger say in decision-making. They argue that districts will be better able to craft pay plans that reward veteran teachers, while still attracting newcomers to the profession.
They agree with the governor on one at least one point: More money will ease the teacher shortage.
"As far as putting more money toward teachers and public schools, of course we’re for that. Democrats have been filing those kinds of bills for years," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami.
"But the question really is, ‘What are Gov. DeSantis and Republican leaders really trying to do? And how are they going to do it?" he added.