Education Rally Florida

Teachers and supporters march Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, during the Florida Education Association's "Take on Tallahassee" rally at the Old Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared 2021 will be "The Year of the Teacher" but on Monday, an estimated 10,000 Florida teachers amended the governor’s declaration to “The Year of the Angry Teacher.”

In one of Tallahassee’s largest demonstrations in years, school workers and teachers from across the state marched on the state capitol demanding lawmakers boost spending on teachers’ salaries beyond the $900 million increase outlined in DeSantis’ Fiscal Year 2021 budget request.

The rally was orchestrated by the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, and came on the eve of the state Legislature convening its 60-day session Tuesday.

A key component of DeSantis’ $91.4 billion fiscal 2021 budget request is $600 million to boost public school teachers’ minimum salary to $47,500 and $300 million to overhaul the state’s "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus program.

But the FEA insists DeSantis’ proposal does not go far enough in addressing years of under-funding for education, under-staffing in classrooms and under-cutting maintenance and capital improvements of school facilities.

To do that, the FEA maintains lawmakers would need to spend $22 billion over the next decade, beginning with $2.4 billion in fiscal 2021 to finance an across-the-board pay increase of 10 percent for every public school employee.

“I want to at least thank the governor for trying to understand that there is a problem. 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,” FEA President Fredrick Ingram said in an address to the throng, noting the governor’s plan – while welcome for starting teachers, does little for veteran teachers.

“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,” Ingram said. “That’s absurd.”

The governor’s plan is too little, too late – and too limited, he said.

“We have any custodians and bus drivers, mental health service workers, counselors?” Ingram asked, receiving a roar in response. “The governor’s plan does not include you.”

The demonstration drew the attention of Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who offered her support in a tweet.

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

House and Senate Democrats have filed bills reflecting the FEA’s request.

Florida House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee, D-Cutler Bay, last week introduced House Bill 1223, which seeks to implement a three-year pay raise plan for all school employees.

Under HB 1223, as of July 1, teachers would see a salary increase to either $47,500 or a 5 percent raise of their current salary, whichever is greater.

“In addition,” according to McGhee’s office, “support employees will receive a 5 percent salary raise.”

On July 1, 2021, teachers would receive a base salary of $49,400 or a 4 percent raise of their current salary and on July 1, 2022, instructional personnel will receive a base salary of $51,376 or a 4 percent raise of their current salary, whichever is greater, under HB 1223.

On Monday, Senate Democrats introduced their own pay raise plan for school workers and teachers that, they say, would cost the same next year as DeSantis’ $900 million proposal.

Under Senate Bill 1854, filed by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, all education employees would see an average pay increase next year of 7.5 percent.

The bill establishes an annual cost-of-living allowance and calls for a pay increase averaging 4.5 percent, which would be allocated by school districts.

“The governor’s call to increase the starting pay of teachers in Florida is long overdue,” Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said in a statement. “But his proposal not only ignores our veteran teachers, but the many individuals who play a critical role in educating Florida’s students. Our legislation corrects his mistakes.”

Of course, the likelihood of such proposals being approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature is not good.

In fact, several key Republican leaders, most notably House Speaker Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, have expressed reservations about passing DeSantis’ proposal, citing budgetary concerns.

SB 1400, introduced by Senate Education Chairman Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, would give school districts more discretion in setting salaries. It does not set a minimum salary or earmark a price tag for the measure.