What the stats reveal about teacher pay: Florida is cheap

The Florida Education Association is touring the state by bus in support of investing in public schools and boosting teacher and staff salaries. Photo by Diane Rado.

In New York, California and Massachusetts, public school teachers earn more than $80,000 a year, on average.

Connecticut and Washington, D.C. teachers make in the mid-70s, and several  more states have average salaries in the 60s and high 50s, national data show. The average across the country is $60,477.

Then comes Florida.

With a trillion-dollar economy and one of the largest student populations in the nation, Florida’s average salary for public school teachers is just $48,168. That ranks Florida as 46th among all states and the District of Columbia, based on 2017-18 statistics from the National Education Association.

The Florida Department of Education’s data, for 2018-19, shows an average of $48,486 for some 176,000 school teachers. The median figure was lower, $45,947.

“It is an embarrassment for the state of Florida, how we treat our educators,” says Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association.

“We cannot continue to educate our children on the cheap. That is not right for our kids. That’s not right for our parents. And that’s not what we want for the future of Florida.”

The statewide teacher’s union will be traveling by bus from Escambia County on the edge of the Panhandle down to the Florida Keys, to get the word out to parents, grandparents, next-door neighbors and other residents about investing billions more for public schools over the next decade. The 10-year price tag would be $22-billion, through 2030.

A “serious down payment” would occur in 2020, according to the union, with $2.4-billion that would allow for across-the-board pay raises for every public-school employee in Florida, from teachers, paraprofessionals and librarians to social workers, cafeteria staffers and bus drivers.

Dollars also would go for school repairs and supplies, from lab materials to band equipment.

Ingram said union officials have visited schools where buildings and football stadiums are dilapidated. He called the situation “atrocious,” given that Florida isn’t struggling — it has one of the biggest economies in the United States.

The very low salaries for public school teachers in Florida have existed for  decades, but the question is, why?

Dominic Calabro is the longtime head of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Florida TaxWatch.

He remembers when education was a bigger portion of Florida’s state budget pie — but that changed when costs for Medicaid, health and social services and corrections expanded. Those new cost pressures changed state finances dramatically, according to Calabro, yet the student population in Florida continued to grow.

Meanwhile, Florida’s population of seniors have been worrying about their own issues – from health care to social security.

A statewide poll earlier this year showed that education wasn’t high on the list when it came to the most important issues facing Florida.  Seniors 65 and older ranked immigration, the environment and climate change and health care as the most important issues facing Florida, with education ranking 7th in the 10 categories.

In some quarters, there’s still a feeling – for better or worse — that retirees have seen their children and grandchildren go to school and some seniors may not want to invest more money into education.

The statewide teacher’s union, however, says low pay for public school teachers also relates to political decisions by lawmakers in Tallahassee.

Those decisions include giving bonuses to educators rather than boosting annual salaries and pushing laws that restrict how pay increases can be negotiated between unions and school administrators.

And unlike other states that allow teachers to strike, Florida teachers can’t do that, making it more difficult to put pressure on lawmakers, school administrators and school board members to increase salaries.

But while the FEA can’t strike, the union plans to get thousands of people to the state Capitol on January 13, to show support for students and schools and let state lawmakers know they need to invest in public education.

“This is our year. To stand up, to stand up and fight back,” Ingram says.

There are signs that something significant could happen in the 2020 legislative session.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a $603-million plan to set the minimum salary for teachers at $47,500, beginning in the 2020-21 academic year.

That would be one of the highest figures in the nation for starting pay.

The average starting salary for Florida teachers in 2017-18 was $37,636 a year, according to the National Education Association. Florida ranked 27th of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., just below the national average of $39,249.

That FEA considers the DeSantis plan a start but wouldn’t want it to focus solely on entry-level teachers. The union also has concerns about how the proposal would impact veteran teachers.

In the state House, lawmakers have already been discussing a boost in teacher pay. The discussion came at a committee meeting led last week by Republican State Rep. Chris Latvala, who represents part of Pinellas County.

Asked if he believes lawmakers will increase teacher pay, Latvala said, “This is not an exercise in futility. This is something that we certainly are going to do.”