By Barbara Gutierrez and Jeanette Neuwahl Tannen
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to increase teacher pay last month, the state went from 26th in the nation to fifth for amount paid to its entry-level educators.
The bill guarantees that most beginning teachers will start with a salary close to $47,500, whereas prior to this, beginning teachers started with an average salary of $37,696 across the state, according to the most recent figures from the National Education Association.
Although the bill does not address a pay raise for veteran teachers, it does show the start of an appreciation for the profession that has been long overdue, said Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.
“The decision to sign the pay hike for teachers is quite significant and it will provide a path toward a livable wage for those professionals who are doing one of the most important jobs possible, which is educating our kids in public school,” she said.
The salary boost is particularly impactful since Florida’s budget has been severely impacted by plummeting state revenue caused by the coronavirus crisis.
The pay raise may help address a lingering teacher shortage by attracting new talent to open positions, said Kohn-Wood. As of January 2020, more than 2,440 teaching positions remained unfilled, a 10 percent increase from January 2019, according to the Florida Education Association.
“Young people were attracted to the profession because of the many rewards that teaching brings, but that was it,” said Kohn-Wood. “Now they will get commensurate pay similar to other professions.”
Mary Avalos, a research associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development, works closely with teachers from Miami-Dade County. She has learned firsthand about the challenges facing teachers today and believes there are more reasons than the salary to explain why there is a lack of aspiring educators today.
“I’ve talked to teachers who have advised their children not to become teachers and that says it all,” she said. “First of all, the salary is low; but secondly, the level of respect that teachers are given is very low.”
But the most frustrating thing about the profession today, teachers have told Avalos, is the fact that many are unable to craft their own lessons. Often, and especially in schools where students have low state test scores, Avalos pointed out, teachers must follow a weekly curriculum guide designed to raise test scores, which leaves them unable to adjust instruction to the needs of their students.
Both educators believe that the pay hike is a wonderful first step toward valuing the work of educators. However, they worry that focusing on the salaries of new teachers, instead of raises across the board, is risky because it also can be insulting to veteran teachers. Especially because some of them now will be making less than starting teachers.
According to the governor’s office, $400 million of the budget will be used to raise starting-teacher salaries, and $100 million will raise existing teachers’ salaries.
“I applaud DeSantis for going to bat for teachers. But the question is, is it enough, and will it have a boomerang effect where more experienced teachers leave?” Avalos asked. “It would signal a lot more respect to the profession to show value for teachers who have been in the classroom so long already.”
Kohn-Wood said that education has been underfunded for a very long time. “Although a competitive salary is important, there are other ways that educators can be helped, she said. The following steps can be taken.
Avalos said that she would like to see school districts put more of a priority on teacher development. And she pointed out that a shift away from using test scores as the primary means to gauge the effectiveness of teachers would help boost potential teachers’ interest in joining the profession.
Regardless of what happens, Avalos said she will be paying attention to see the effects that this bump in starting pay will have in attracting more educators to the classroom.
“Most people don’t go into education to make money but they do need to have a living wage,’’ Avalos said. “So, it’ll be interesting to see how things play out.”