TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday called for another round of teacher pay hikes, while taking aim at teachers unions and calling for partisan elections and stricter term limits for school-board members.
Appearing at Duval Charter School at Baymeadows in Jacksonville, DeSantis rolled out a series of education proposals for the legislative session that will start March 7. A move from non-partisan to partisan school-board elections would require a constitutional amendment, with DeSantis backing the idea after he took the unusual step of supporting a slate of 30 school-board candidates last year.
"What we've seen over the years is you have counties, you know, in like Southwest Florida, voted for me by like 40 points and yet they're electing people to the school board who are like totally the opposite philosophy," DeSantis said.
Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who doubles as chairman of the state GOP, and Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, have filed proposals (SJR 94 and HJR 31) that would ask voters in 2024 to approve moving to partisan school-board elections.
DeSantis used Monday’s appearance to announce that he will ask lawmakers to add $200 million to a current $800 million pot of money to raise teachers salaries. The governor’s office said the average starting salary for teachers in Florida is $48,000.
"We think that that's important to both recruit and retain good people in the classroom," DeSantis said.
According to the National Education Association, the average starting teacher salary across the nation in 2020-2021 was $41,770.
The Florida Education Association teachers union, pointed to Florida laws and rules that it said often leave veteran teachers earning little more than new hires. It also criticized DeSantis for a "do what I say, or else" approach to education.
"Teachers and staff in our public schools struggle to pay rent, homeowners insurance and other bills because their pay is so low, just like so many Floridians," union President Andrew Spar said in a prepared statement. "Teachers and staff are leaving at an alarming rate, in large part due to the policies implemented under Gov. DeSantis."
Democrat lawmakers also criticized aspects of DeSantis’ proposals.
House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said she had not seen details of DeSantis’ initiatives, but she called the funding request a "political move by a man who wants to be president and distract from the abortion discussion."
"We should have paid our teachers what they're worth a long time ago," Driskell said in a conference call with reporters. "We should have given our districts the control to do what they need to do for teacher salaries a long time ago."
She also compared the additional money to a form of "gaslighting" teachers.
"You can't say, ‘Teachers, I'm going to weaken your ability to have collective bargaining and to pay your union dues. Teachers you cannot accurately teach history. Teachers, you're under the gun and we're going to make you compete with these for-profit charter schools and give away all these vouchers to these private schools that don't require their teachers to go through the same sort of training and be certified. But here's some money. We hope you feel better,’" Driskell said.
DeSantis on Monday repeated a call for the Republican-dominated Legislature to eliminate automatic union dues deductions from teachers’ paychecks. If such a change is made, it would require teachers to separately pay dues. He also called for limiting the pay of union leaders.
"If you're somebody that's working for a school union, you should not make any more than what the highest-paid teacher is making," DeSantis said.
DeSantis also said he wants lawmakers to consider a "teachers’ Bill of Rights" offering protections for classroom instructors.
"Teachers should not be at fault if you have kids fighting or being disruptive," DeSantis said. "You know a teacher has every right to ensure discipline and to ensure a safe learning environment. I think sometimes teachers feel they will end up being the bad guy just by making sure that the kids are behaving."
A news release from the governor’s office said the bill of rights, in part, would protect teachers from litigation when trying to restore classroom safety and allow teachers to file administrative complaints when districts or schools discipline them for not following state law.
DeSantis, who is widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has drawn attention for his efforts to put more conservatives on school boards. In addition to wanting candidates to be able to run with partisan labels, he called Monday for reducing school-board term limits from 12 years to eight years. Lawmakers approved 12-year term limits last year.
DeSantis said "12 years is better than nothing, but I think we can do better."