Florida keeps trying to increase its national rankings. The Governor recently signed a record high $100 billion state budget that provides $22.8 billion for education and a 50 million increase to raise starting teacher salaries to 5th in the nation.
But the pay plan crafted by the legislature still leaves 80% of the state’s classroom teachers scraping the bottom of the barrel and lacks the funds to provide equitable annual raises for most school employees.
In Show Me the Money, we’ll explore how far up the ladder the 2021 state budget will boost Florida teacher salaries in the national rankings and whether districts will again be forced to find creative ways to increase salaries to retain teachers and staff.
- Cathy Boehme, FEA Legislative Specialist, and former Escambia County School District Biology Teacher
- Paul Fetsko, Escambia County School Board and former Escambia County Assistant Superintendent
Sharon Nesvig, Announcer: You're listening to “Educating from the Heart.” Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.
[00:00:00]Tina Dunbar, Host: Alright welcome back everyone, and Luke it is so good to finally see you!
[00:00:34Luke Flynt, Host: Yes! Not just on a computer screen but we’re actually in the same room together!
[00:00:00] Tina: Yes, recording, for the first time, our first podcast together. And unfortunately it took until the end of the school year to get to it. Yes, this seems like it’s been the longest school year ever. You notice that?
[00:00:55] Luke: Oh god.
[00:00:58] Tina: Oh, some of our districts have already ended their classes, but we have others with classes winding down.
[00:01:03] Luke: You know, looking back on this season, one of the first episodes we talked about the Educator Pay Plan and how divisive it is, that it really pits especially new teachers against experienced teachers. During the pandemic we heard a lot of talk about how educators are valued, and I’m wondering did we actually see any of that in the budget, did the budget that the legislature passed, that the governor signed, actually show that respect that we heard so much talk about?
[00:01:34]Tina: I think we saw the exact opposite this year. It’s kind of confusing the way it happened. Now remember last year’s new teacher pay mandate to increase starting salaries to $47, 500? It was supposed to elevate salaries for first year teachers, making Florida one of the top states in the nation on starting salaries. At least that was the governor’s rhetoric. The legislature allocated $500 million to the budget, now more than a year later we see that pot of money wasn’t enough. It focused exclusively on first-year teachers, as I mentioned, and that divisive mandate left out others, especially experienced teachers; they were left out in the cold, as far as pay goes.
[00:02:26] Luke: But DeSantis went across the state bragging about this great job that he’s done funding education and specifically that he’s giving bonuses to teachers. How does that play into this state budget?
[00:02:38] Tina: Well, this year, not at all. Actually that’s about federal money, a good chunk of that money really is coming from the federal relief money. Governor DeSantis and the legislative leaders had the opportunity to invest state dollars in meaningful ways to ensure that all educators a fair and equitable salary, but that didn’t happen this year. And don’t let those half-truths fool you. The state budget still leaves behind students and the rest of our educators, you know, the bus drivers, the counselors, the office staff the parents talk with, the people basically who run the schools. Thankfully for that federal funding it will fill those gaps too, but I feel like the state really missed the mark this year.
[00:03:29] Luke: You know, that sounds really complicated. Luckily we do have a couple of experts here with us to talk about the state’s education budget, what the next school year might look like, and how Florida’s low per-student funding is causing problems in school districts for students and for educators. Many school districts can’t even find enough people to fill the vacant positions right now.
[00:03:53] Tina: That’s right, Luke. So, with us today are Cathy Boehme, a former teacher from Escambia County and a Legislative Specialist for the Florida Education Association. We also have Paul Fetsko, he’s a school board member in Escambia County and a former assistant superintendent. We start by asking both of them about the level of education funding.
You hear a lot of questions that people ask, and when they look at education funding: is it enough money? Are we funding public education at the level it needs to be funded at? And how does this current budget reflect our values towards our state values towards public education? Cathy, how do you assess this year's budget as compared to last to past year's budgets?
[00:05:00] Cathy Boehme-Legislative Specialist: I'm of two minds. I think that we are lucky we don't have massive cuts. I think we're fortunate that the federal government is providing a whole lot of money to kind of fill in the shortfall that we have for tax revenue. It is not a budget that's gonna’ allow us to make great strides in teacher salaries. But I do think that we'll be able to maintain the services that we've offered. I'm worried about making progress. I think the teacher salary and staff shortages will persist. And I don't think we make progress on that.
[00:05:32] Paul Fetsko-Escambia, School Board Member: I concur with Cathy on her statements, that that is where we are. I think that unfortunately, things may need to get worse before they get better. In order for some people to get off with some of the initiatives that they think are our priority, the reality is going to be this. They better be putting some work into what they're going to do to fill the teacher shortage, because something's going to give, okay, it's got to. If we don't have people out there who want to teach and who are good teachers, we can't continue to do things that we're doing. Class sizes will double, maybe triple. Who knows? And somebody is going to have to thumb their nose to the class size reduction thing. It's like, I don't have a warm body to go in there. I could put these kids in that classroom, but they won't have a teacher. Okay. I think that what needs to happen is some of the priorities that are happening with the current budget in terms of salaries need to be redirected and looked at in a more reasonable way.
[00:06:52] Tina: Yes. Thank you. Paul. Cathy, how would you respond to that?
[00:06:55] Cathy: Our teachers are the heart of our work. Our staff make our buses run, get our kids to school. We feed our children with our cafeteria workers. You know, it's just critical that we have great staff. And what we know is we have very, very persistent and very alarming teacher shortage. Our teacher pay is 50th in the country this year. We are 12% farther behind than we were in 2008 during the Great Recession. And so we're actually losing ground on teacher pay, and we see that in college graduates. The college graduates coming in, our teacher prep have had a steady, steady, steady decline. And so fewer and fewer people are going into the profession at all.
[00:07:47] Luke: So I, I think Cathy, you know, made a really good point about the teacher and staff shortage. And Paul, you were spot on when you said the most important thing is the teacher, right. You know, with the technology and all that is nice to have, but the teacher is what makes the difference. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of students, probably in Escambia alone, that don't have a certified teacher in front of them every day.
And we've seen the legislature attempt many ways to attract teachers, the most recent plan being to raise the starting salary, of course, to $47,500, which I know Escambia was not given enough funds to do. And all of their plans so far seem to have fallen flat a bit. They are not actually addressing the crisis. So from your perspective, what will it take? Both in financial investments and investments in human resources and treating people well to ensure that students are able to attend fully-staffed schools?
[00:08:59] Paul: Now if somebody is really going to believe in what's good and what's happening for kids and education, they’re going to look at having teachers who were well-trained and professionally ready, and that means putting money into staff development. Now I say that, and I looked at this year's budget coming up, and teacher training money, staff development money is a drop in the bucket. It's nothing, and it should be a major part of it.
And that goes back to some of the things we talked at one point on the phone, Tina, about unfunded mandates, you know, so why would somebody have a requirement for new social studies, civics education and not put the money there with it to have the right materials and teachers trained to use those materials effectively?
The training that goes into that is more important than the materials themselves. Now I'm not against civics. I think that our students need to know what's happening and how their lives are being run. But the thing about it is to just tell us as educators that this needs to be done without the money for the training to have it occur in a meaningful way. Okay. Those kinds of consequences are, you're kind of putting the holes in the bottom of the ship as you're christening it.
[00:10:29] Tina: How serious is the problem of unfunded mandates for school districts? What percentage can you project? What percentage of your budget is encumbered that way? And, what does that do in terms of the flexibility of the leftover money? What does that mean?
[00:10:50] Paul: The general fund dollars of things that you have the most discretion on how you're going to spend it, and that's where the normal teacher salaries come from. These special allocations to raise the minimum starting salary is a whole different issue, and I do not want to get into that at this point, but the unfunded mandate part, and my easiest way of explaining is that the idea of a class size reduction amendment was a good idea. When class size came into effect, there was money put forward to hire people.
And that was wonderful, but nobody took into consideration that if you add 20,000 new teachers, you need 20,000 new classrooms, that money didn't go there. You need 20,000 more teacher additions to all the instructional materials that wasn't given. You need 20,000 more desks for teachers. And then the same, you know, corresponding number for the classroom, for the students who are going to be in there.
All of these other things that, that needed to be looked at from a funding perspective, weren’t. The money was given to hire the hires happened and districts had to use every penny they had to be able to find a place and the furniture, fixtures, and equipment to go to get that classroom operate operating: that came out of that was an unfunded mandate. When these mandates or when these new directions are taken, somebody needs to stop and say, “Hey, let's think this through.”
[00:12:27] Tina: So, what I hear you saying though, is that the district doesn’t, I mean, the state sends millions of dollars to these districts to do certain things, but they are not fully funding the needs in the district.
[00:12:43] Cathy: Okay. One of the things that I think we ought to highlight about Florida's formula is that we actually take the money into the state and then distributed it out fairly equitably. So, for instance, in a tiny little county that is very rural and very dependent on agriculture, their property taxes don't generate a lot of money. But other coastal counties that have higher property values generate per student a lot more funding. And so one of the advantages to Florida's FEFP, the funding formula, is that we try to be more equitable and distribute the money to all students in all districts, across the state, fairly evenly, as opposed to many places where there's a huge disparity in county by county amount of money.
So that's an advantage. So while we have equitable distribution of the funds we have, we take in very, very few dollars compared to most states in the country. And I think that the, the idea that we want to fund our communities has actually been pretty well received. You know, I know Escambia last year passed a referendum to support very young children and the education and supportive of that because they were convinced it was a really important thing to do.
But I do want to ask a question because, you know, I've given a lot of answers. I want to ask a question, and maybe it goes to Paul, and it kind of is what Tina has been pushing at. Paul, are there needs in Escambia County to repair buildings?
[00:14:25] Paul: No.
[00:14:26] Cathy: Okay, good. Because and the reason is—
[00:14:30] Paul: And the reason is that we have a local half cent sales tax that comes in, and it's generating anywhere from 28 to $30 million a year because the state has not funded the capital side for public schools in years. Okay. And so it falls on local things to happen, but our schools are in great shape, and the renovations and the work that's been done on our capital side has been good, but it's because we've done it locally.
[00:15:04] Tina: We still haven't answered one question. I think that a lot of people ask, and that's every year we hear about all this historical funding that goes to public education. And yet at the same time, we hear this fight for more funding for our schools, that schools don't have, all schools don't have the things that they need. Um, it's so it begs the question is the state adequately funding public schools? or maybe we need to change the word “adequate” to “quality funding.” Do we need better funding? You mentioned Massachusetts and other states that fund higher than we do.
[00:15:45] Paul: I won't make a blank statement and say the funding is adequate or that it's inadequate. What I'm saying is if you're going to fund us, let us decide how we're going to use it. Stop putting all these restrictions, stop making everything directed and categorical.
And if you do that, if you make it a categorical and they, if they believe that that's what should happen, they should have the wherewithal, the intestinal fortitude to say, this is the decision I made, and this is why. There would be districts who would never buy another new textbook if it wasn't in categorical. Okay? Where they might not do it as they should do it. So I get the need for that. There, there needs to be some reasonableness and how that goes on. I don't think that funding every district the same way is necessarily fair, but I don't have the systems that I could sit by right now and say, “This is how it should be done.”
I do want to get back to the salary side and stuff. Because I know that's a main thing with, with what you want to talk about. I don't want to say something's going to have to happen different with salaries in the state of Florida when we have a national shortage of teachers, if we're going to recruit people who really want to be educators, and then we better put the money into training those people into being quality educators, or all we're doing is wasting money.
[00:17:20] Luke: Yeah. So, along those lines. And I think that's a great point. The goal to get every first year teacher up to $47,500 is a worthwhile goal, but you're also only a first year teacher for one year. And if you're a 10, 12, 15-year teacher making a first-year teacher salary, that that pill can be a little hard to swallow. So, what I think I hear you saying is, “alright, you state give us funds to increase salaries, but the needs in Escambia are different than the rest of the state. So, so give us the funds, but don't then also tie our hands and say, you must use the funds for salary increases in this exact way.”
So if you had the freedom to use the funds rather than just, you shuffled them along the way that you are directed to do so, would that help to alleviate the teacher and staff shortage?
[00:18:34] Paul: It, it would help, but the other thing that needs to happen, and I'm going back to a profession. Okay. So, there needs to be better collaboration between the districts and the unions. Our problem in Escambia County has been exacerbated because although our starting salary has not been as good as it needed to be, we through the years, over 20 to 25 years of negotiating, have had this higher salary at the beginning, higher at the end. Okay? The middle is what's awful. And that's where the whole thing about “the ten-year teacher's gonna make the same as the first year teacher” and that was created, or that occurred because of bargaining things that went awry over a number of years.
So fixing it is going to take the work of both sides. We're going to need the money to do it, but both sides are going to have to make a commitment to have this fair and equitable salary scale that people are going to work along. We have things Escambia that need to be fixed and work that, when those middle years are there. And again, like I said earlier, we're training people when they're new and they're becoming really good, but after five years, they could go across the bay and make more because that district's middle section of the salary scale is better, so much better than ours. This isn't going to be fixed overnight.
So what are we going to commit to in a five-year or 10-year plan so that we could get this compression thing worked out the way it needs to be? It kind of hit everybody in the face, wham!
[00:20:27] Cathy: But one of the things that I remember is that about 2007, right before the Great Tecession, we had a 2% per year steps. And so every year you went up 2%, 2%, 2%, 2%. And that always made sense to us. Now it took us, remember we had a five-year plan and it took us 10 years to get there?
[00:20:47] Paul: Right.
[00:20:49] Cathy: And then immediately after that, so then we had the great recession and we had two things happen: we had budget cuts and then we were also required to implement differentiated pay and performance pay.
And so when they started putting all of those requirements, and I think we're up to 17 different requirements for different things you have to do inside your salary schedule, then that kind of forced that. And so it wasn't the district or EEA or our union. It was that we had to take this small amount of money. We didn't have enough to do everything we wanted, and never will, but we also then were required to put it in particular places, which didn't necessarily make sense to either you or us.
[00:21:40] Paul: I agree, a hundred percent. I'm with you, Kathy. And what you're saying is absolutely right. Again, I'm going back to, as a profession, we need to take control of profession and take it out of the hands of politicians. Digging the way out of this and working, and it's going to have to be a collaborative effort, and we're not going to get the leadership to do it from DOE because DOE doesn't do that anymore. Educators need to take control of education again.
[00:22:17] Luke: You've mentioned several times, and I could not agree more, the importance, number one, of teachers recognizing and respecting the profession of education, and the importance of regaining control. I guess my question is: for an educator who wants to regain control, but either does not know how, or maybe because they're on an annual contract, is scared to ruffle any feathers. How do you suggest that an educator go about regaining control of the profession? And this is for either or both of you.
[00:23:01] Paul: They need to band together what somebody does that they're part of and they help to develop, they support. Our district made extremely large gains when our teachers were given the responsibility for developing every instructional thing that occurred. They worked together, they collaborated, they then valued each other like they hadn't before.
[00:23:30] Tina: Cathy, how do you respond to that?
[00:23:33] Cathy: Well, so, you know, it's so complicated, and Paul is so right about two pieces, especially, but collaborating, working together to try and solve problems I think is really critical and it's the only way we get it done. But I also think that we've got to broaden our base of support. And so teachers need to be part of the PTA organizations as parents and teachers, and then we need to be bringing the communities together so that everybody is aware that there really is a problem.
I don't believe that the districts are getting enough money to support all of the things that we really expect our schools to do for our kids.
[00:24:24] Paul: You know, I keep going back. I wish that there were teachers who would make as much money as a basketball player or a football player, you know, and they deserve that and much more. But the public needs to have that same attitude and belief before we see major differences.
[00:24:49] Tina: So Luke this situation has really created a big mess in terms of paying our teachers, and it kind of seems to, a phrase that you have coined: the Florida salary penalties, like that’s what’s happening for many of our educators that are caught in the middle.
[00:25:08] Luke: Yeah, so let me explain what I mean by the penalty. It is true that with the governor’s quest to get first-year teachers up to a starting salary of $47, 500 that first-year teachers are getting paid well, relative to the rest of the nation. The problem is you’re only a first-year teacher for one year. So, by the time you’re five years into the profession, you’re no longer fifth in the nation in pay. And by the time you’re ten, fifteen years into the profession, you’re down at the very bottom, 48, 49th, 50th in the nation in pay. So, that’s the salary penalty, that Florida’s experienced teachers get paid less and less and less relative to the national average the longer that they teach. So, what we’re going to see, what we’re already starting to see is the best and most experienced teachers are being exported, they are leaving Florida to find states that will treat them and pay them what they are worth.
[00:26:18] Tina: Wow, we’re sending our best teachers away. They start off at fifth in the nation in terms of salary, and then they drop off to 40th, 45th, and then they just totally bottom out, and we lose them. So, your question about valuing our teachers at the start of the episode, there it is right there. You know, I have to agree with our school board member; I think that Paul was right that educators need to take back the profession, but I don’t know how you do that today, when we have so many annual contract teachers. And we already know from a previous podcast that annual contract teachers aren’t willing to stand up like that because they know they could lose their job.
[00:27:00] Luke: You are so right, and it is tough. But when educators do join together and speak with one voice, we have the power to make the change we need in order for every student to succeed. There is no doubt that public education in the state of Florida is under attack, and we see that in the budget that we just talked about. We are one of the richest states in the richest nation in the world; there is enough money in the state of Florida to ensure that every educator has a salary that is worthy of the incredible work that they do. Right now there is just not political will to ensure that educators are fairly paid.
[00:27:45] Tina: It all starts at the ballot box. And with all of us working together maybe we can help voters understand that we need to elect politicians who actually listen to educators and prioritize public education for all students.
Alright, that’s it for our show, and we have a brief programming note as we wrap up the first season of “Educating from the Heart.” We’re going to take a brief pause over the summer, but we’ll be back with brand-new episodes to kick off the new school year.
[00:28:14] Luke: And when we do return, we will again take deep dives into the issues that impact Florida’s students, educators, and public schools. While we’re away you can always listen to previous episodes of our podcast by visiting www.feaweb.org/podcast. Again, that’s feaweb.org/podcast.
[00:28:36] Tina: Also, if you enjoy “Educating from the Heart” please give us a rating and review and ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll see you again real soon. Until then, keep educating from the heart.
[00:28:55] Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA President Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit FEAweb.org/podcast.
[00:29:08] Sharon: “Educating from the Heart” is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education, staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators.