Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Education

Andrew Gillum wants to pay starting teachers $50,000. Could that ever happen in Florida?

When Valerie Chuchman moved to Florida from Wisconsin eight years ago, her new principal joked that while she was taking a significant salary cut, she would be repaid in sunshine.

Unfortunately, the Riverview High School chemistry teacher said, sunshine doesn’t pay the bills. And if she’s still living paycheck to paycheck after 21 years, she can only imagine how tough it is for newer educators.

"You still need to attract and retain teachers," she said.

So Chuchman sees value in a proposal by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum to increase teachers’ starting salaries to $50,000 a year. But does she see it ever happening?

"That would be fantastic," said Chuchman, a stalwart Democrat and union activist. "However, I don’t see that realistically happening right away."

The $50,000 mark, which Gillum has called Florida’s "right base salary," has long been an aspirational target here and in other states. It would also affect the rest of the salary scale, propelling the state’s average teacher pay from near the bottom of the barrel to the top of the heap.

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Florida’s average starting teacher salary in 2016-17 was $37,405, about $1,000 less than the national figure and pretty much in the middle of all states, according to the National Education Association.

Only New Jersey and the District of Columbia came in above $50,000. Most were below $45,000.

When looking at the average pay for all its 175,225 teachers, Florida fared worse.

U.S. Labor statistics put the state 11th lowest, at $49,973. That’s about $10,000 less than the national number, with Oklahoma at the bottom and New York at the top.

The Florida Department of Education listed average teacher pay a bit lower, at $48,168.

Gillum said in an email that pushing the state to a $50,000 starting salary, and lifting all others, would make Florida competitive for the best teachers. He deemed that a critical piece of properly preparing children for their future.

"Right now, Miami area teachers can only afford 9 percent of houses in that area. Gadsden County teachers make an average salary of $35,474, and this is while nearly half of households in Florida struggle to make ends meet," he said.

Boosting pay to the level Gillum proposes would require a heavy financial lift — a half billion dollars a year or more, according to Florida Education Association estimates.

And that’s just not something the Republican-dominated state Legislature has been willing to consider.

It has had the opportunity.

As both a senator and representative, Democrat Kevin Rader has filed his "Florida Teacher Fair Pay Act" annually since 2015.

The measure, which would set a statewide minimum teacher salary at $50,000, never has received a committee hearing, or a staff analysis.

Incoming Senate president Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, indicated that the similar Gillum pay plan, and its attached corporate tax hike, likely would remain a nonstarter.

"Campaign talk is a lot different from reality. We have to deal with reality in the Legislature," Galvano said via email. "The reality is that increasing the corporate income tax would be a dramatic step backwards for Florida and would certainly send the wrong message to private sector businesses that create the jobs Florida families rely on."

Galvano said the Legislature worked with Gov. Rick Scott to increase funding without higher taxes. Republicans remain committed to putting more money toward schooling, he added, but not through taxing.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis also has said he wants to reward strong teachers financially. But he focused his plan on optimizing the teacher merit pay evaluation system "so it is based reasonably on classroom performance."

He also talks about creating incentives to attract teachers to hard-to-fill positions.

For funding, though, DeSantis focuses on finding money from within existing sources.

State Rep. Shevrin Jones, ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said the money already exists. Funneling it toward teachers simply requires resetting priorities, he suggested.

"I’ve seen us move dollars to make everything work," Jones said, mentioning the state’s various tax credit scholarships and voucher programs as examples.

He offered the frequent criticism of such expenses, deeming them an attempt to privatize education for others’ gains. Yet the ideas, whether charter schools or performance-based pay, remain the Republicans’ preferred approach.

Jones acknowledged the disruption that could take place if the state were to tear down existing structures. But no more need to be approved, he suggested, as the state turns its attention to paying teachers a better salary.

Perhaps a Gillum win would demonstrate voter support for such ideas, Jones said, and lead lawmakers to consider compromises.

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"If my Republican colleagues, if they are so quick to say ‘We value our education system,’ and they want to build an innovative system, you cannot do that without qualified teachers in the classroom," he said.

FEA communication director Sharon Nesvig noted the Legislature could generate more than $500 million a year by not forcing school districts to reduce the property tax known as the "required local effort," which gives them most of their operating money. Nearly $250 million more could come from reallocating the "Best and Brightest" bonus that teachers disdain but still accept, she said.

The "Hope" charter schools program has about $115 million more in unspent funds, she added.

"Parents and grandparents have seen firsthand that we are losing good teachers, and a big part of the problem is funding — low pay is a big part of the problem," Nesvig said in an email. "I think you will see more pressure put on the Legislature to do what is needed to help our public schools."

Backers recognized that a $50,000 base might not be attainable.

"It’s a reach," Chuchman said. "And I think most of my colleagues see that too."

But in their eyes, at least it’s a conversation they consider in their favor, compared to past years’ talk about increasing pension costs and tying contracts to test scores.

"Do I think if Gillum gets elected, he’s going to get a $50,000 salary right away? No. I’m a realist," Chuchman said. "However … I think he will work to raise salaries."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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