TALLAHASSEE — After warning of big budget vetoes because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday secured the fate of one major spending item: teacher pay increases.
The Republican governor signed into law a measure that sets the stage for spending $500 million to try to boost the minimum salaries of classroom teachers to at least $47,500 and to give raises to veteran teachers.
The initiative was one of DeSantis’ top priorities during this year’s legislative session, which ended in March. But after the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the state’s economy, the governor warned that even some of his priorities could be vetoed.
“It was quite a challenge to make sure that even though we fought for it, we would be able to do it,” DeSantis said at a news conference at Mater Academy Charter School in Hialeah Gardens. “I can report that while we have not made every decision about the budget, this (teacher pay funding) will be there 100 percent. We are going to make tough choices, but this is important.”
DeSantis signed the bill (HB 641) into law alongside lawmakers including Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, who lauded the governor for keeping his promise of making 2020 the “year of the teacher.”
“People said after COVID-19 that this shouldn’t happen or that we shouldn’t do this anymore. But today, it’s happening. Promise made, promise kept,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.
The measure creates a framework in the state’s school-funding formula to provide the pay raises to teachers. The budget, which DeSantis is expected to sign in the coming days, will then set aside $400 million for school districts and charter schools to increase minimum salaries of full-time teachers and certified pre-kindergarten teachers and $100 million to raise the pay of veteran teachers and other employees such as librarians and school counselors.
“Hopefully, by doing something like this, it will entice some more people who may be young and are thinking about what they want to do to maybe go into teaching,” DeSantis said.
The governor said it is important to “reward people who are working hard,” while also noting that higher minimum starting salaries will help the state recruit better teachers.
Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement the governor’s decision was “especially meaningful” because DeSantis had indicated that even some of his priorities would be part of the “chopping block of vetoes” because of the pandemic.
“The decision to leave this investment for Florida’s schools intact is an acknowledgement of the hard work our members do each and every day for Florida’s students,” the president of the statewide teachers union said.
At the start of this year’s legislative session, DeSantis asked lawmakers to approve $900 million in teacher pay initiatives, which included boosting the minimum starting salary to $47,500 and creating a new $300 million bonus program for teachers and principals.
But as the legislative session churned and the pandemic slashed state revenues, lawmakers signed off on the $500 million teacher pay package.
Under Florida law, each school district is charged with salary negotiations. During the session, Republican lawmakers expressed concerns that money set aside for teacher pay may shrink after negotiations are finalized at the local level.
So, the bill states that once school districts negotiate salaries, they must submit a report to the Florida Department of Education that details exactly how the funds for teacher salary increases were spent.
In addition to helping boost teacher pay, the measure eliminates the embattled “Best and Brightest” program. The program, which offered bonuses to public school teachers and principals, was beset by controversy since its creation in 2015.
The program was eliminated a year after DeSantis asked lawmakers to restructure it and remove educators’ SAT and ACT college-entrance scores as a factor in determining bonuses.
The use of the SAT and ACT scores was at the core of a class-action lawsuit that alleged the scores had a “disparate impact” on black, Hispanic and older teachers. In March, a federal judge approved a $15.5 million settlement in the lawsuit.
The push to boost increased teacher pay comes as teachers have worked to keep classes running online during the pandemic. After months of distance learning, DeSantis and state education leaders have put forth guidelines to reopen public schools at full capacity in August.
“The message should be loud and clear. We want schools fully open in the fall because there is no better way to educate our kids than to have that great teacher in front of that child,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told reporters June 12.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Corcoran said the teacher pay initiative will improve the quality of educators in the classroom.
“The real winner, the biggest winner from this initiative … are the children,” Corcoran said. “Yeah, the teachers are getting the money, but the kids are the winners because they are going to have tremendous quality education outcomes.”