TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to raise the minimum salary of Florida teachers to $47,500, a proposal that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and likely will be a key issue during the upcoming 2020 legislative session.
The governor had hinted for months that he was developing a teacher-compensation package, and he unveiled the $603 million plan Monday alongside two powerful allies: Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Senate budget chief Rob Bradley.
"If you look at ways you can make an impact in students' achievement … having a great teacher in front of the students is really the best thing you can do," DeSantis said during a news conference at Middleburg High School in Clay County.
The most effective way of ensuring that happens, he said, is by having a higher minimum salary.
The governor said his proposal would lead to a boost in pay for more than 100,000 teachers statewide. When asked later at an appearance at a Broward County school why he opted to raise the minimum salary and not overall average salaries for educators, DeSantis said the plan would affect "60 percent of teachers" and have the most impact.
"This proposal, if enacted, would take us from the bottom half of states in terms of starting salary to the top five of states in starting salaries," DeSantis said during the Clay County event.
During his appearance in Pinellas County, the governor said this increase is strictly for classroom teachers, but indicated he would ask for an overall increase in education funding, which would allow districts to determine pay increases for veteran educators and support staff.
The Florida Education Association statewide teachers union issued a news release saying it was "encouraged to hear Gov. Ron DeSantis make clear that teacher pay matters to his administration." But it also raised questions about how the plan would be funded and what it would do to help retain longstanding teachers.
"We thank the governor for opening a dialogue on salaries and for acknowledging that our teachers are woefully underpaid," union President Fedrick Ingram said in a prepared statement. "Raising minimum starting pay is a beginning. We still hope to hear about what Gov. DeSantis plans to do to retain experienced teachers who have devoted years to their students, and about how his administration will provide fair, competitive pay for all the people essential to our schools --- bus drivers, paraprofessionals, food-service workers, office staff, custodial personnel and others."
Florida ranked 27th in the nation for average teacher starting pay during the 2017-2018 school year at $37,636, according to the National Education Association. The national average starting salary was $39,249.
The state's overall average teacher pay in 2017-2018 topped $48,000, but educators have long called for higher salaries as Florida has ranked near the bottom nationally.
The state's schools receive much of their funding through a complicated formula, and county school boards ultimately negotiate contracts with teachers. But the Republican-dominated Legislature in recent years also has emphasized bonus programs for teachers, including putting in state law the controversial "Best and Brightest" bonus program.
That program, however, could be in peril during the 2020 session, which starts Jan. 14.
During the past month, DeSantis has called the bonus program "very complicated" and suggested it might not necessarily be part of his education agenda for the session.
Also, Bradley, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has filed a bill that would repeal the bonus program from state law. However, it remains to be seen whether DeSantis will back eliminating the program.
"He hasn't told me his position on my bill," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told The News Service of Florida in a text message Monday.
Bradley's bill was filed after the state agreed to pay $15.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that focused on allegations that the bonus program discriminated against black and Hispanic teachers.
Those allegations stemmed from the state's past use of teachers' scores on ACT and SAT college-entrance exams in helping determine whether teachers should receive bonuses. This spring, the Republican-dominated Legislature and DeSantis moved to do away with that test requirement
While Bradley is spearheading the push to repeal the program, Corcoran and some key Republican lawmakers who oversee education policies in the House have continued to support Best and Brightest.
House Education Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said last month that while she hopes to see across-the-board salary increases, "if you are talking about salary increases, you also have to take a look at our bonus program, and that is the Best and Brightest program."
DeSantis said Monday in Broward County that he is working with Corcoran on a possible "revamped" teacher bonus program.
Last month, during a State Board of Education meeting, Corcoran said "bonuses will always be a factor because you have to make differentiations when they are justified."
Corcoran, however, said Monday the governor's new proposal would be "transformative" for Florida, which is dealing with a teacher shortage. He said raising the base salary would help schools retain and attract new teachers.
Lawmakers will consider the potentially popular plan as dozens of them run for re-election in 2020. But the plan also comes as state economists have warned about a possible economic slowdown and a relatively small budget surplus next fiscal year.
DeSantis said his proposal will fit "neatly" within a budget proposal he will release before the session. When asked how it would be funded, DeSantis said "there is enough general revenue funding" to pay for the initiative.
"I am happy that this is something that is not pie in the sky. This is achievable, so we have to get this done," he added.