Florida’s Education System on Life Support?
As the 2019-2020 school year has come to a close in Florida, we have learned that teachers are quite adaptable to extreme circumstances. Almost overnight, thousands of teachers courses were transferred completely online to try and teach many thousands more students and keep them engaged during the still active COVID-19 pandemic. The effort was incredible, and a testament to what teachers will do to make sure they get their kids the best education possible, under any condition. You do not have to look too far to find inspiring stories.
What is not inspiring, is the projected shortfall for the State of Florida from a loss of revenue due to COVID-19. When the year started, Republican governor Ron DeSantis somewhat got his wish for teachers, resulting in a $400 million inclusion to the state budget to increase base teacher salaries for teachers to $47,500 and an extra $100 million set aside for counties to boost salaries for experienced instructors and staff, according to the Herald Tribune. However, this secondary funding will still create situations where teachers with decades of experience may make the same as a teacher with less than five years of experience (TBT).
With the most recently available data in the State of Florida, a starting teacher makes on average a base salary of $37,636, compared to a $39,249 national average starting salary. The average salary overall for a Florida teacher was $48,168 while the national average was $60,477 (NEA). That puts Florida teacher salaries at 46th out of 50 states for pay rankings (TBT). The $500 million increase in state funding will raise Florida’s place in the starting salary rankings to be amongst the highest in the country.
Because of the pandemic, schools are going to be taking hard looks at programs and if they are truly necessary. Over the course of the recession, back in 2008, Sarasota area schools had enrollment fall by 1,300 students, and saw a budget decrease of $64 million over a 5-year period of 2007 to 2012.
However, thanks to strong state revenues to start 2020, and stimulus funding, the State of Florida has $9 Billion for state budget stabilization. But just because the money is there, does not mean it should be spent and it may not be enough.
Nationwide, it is estimated that public schools need $200 billion or otherwise will need to lay off 275,000 teachers nationwide according to a letter, in part signed by Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins along with other large school districts in the nation, and sent to congress (Orlando Sentinel). If Florida is not able to find the funds to cover for the losses, repercussions could include not just laying off teachers, but having higher classroom sizes, teachers teaching subjects they are not accustomed too, and the eventual problem of incomplete learning from the current pandemic.
Recently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moody analytics predicted that under a “moderate stress” scenario, Florida would need an additional $8.1 Billion and perhaps up to $10 billion under a worst-case scenario to balance their state budget. This need comes primarily from those who are laid off needing to enroll in Medicaid (Florida Politics). Florida has a savings set aside which is similar in size, but if that cash is all spent, would the State be in a good fiscal position? And what about the following years shortfalls, due to the potential for reverberating effects of this virus? You cannot build up a piggy bank you keep pulling out of.
This is against a background of an already strained public education system in Florida. During the 2018 Gubernational race between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum, there were discussions on a variety of issues prevalent to the State of Florida with education one point of contention.
Candidate Gillum proposed a $50,000 starting salary for Florida teachers, and a lift in the income of others. To pay for it, he proposed increases in the relatively low Florida corporate tax rate, which would have put Florida at or above nearby states corporate rates. Candidate DeSantis also wanted to look into rewarding teachers financially, but mainly through a change in the teacher merit pay evaluation system. This would mean basing higher salaries on performance. To pay for his proposal, candidate DeSantis wanted to use money from existing sources, rather than raise taxes in the very tax friendly Florida.
As an example, Sharon Nesvig, the Florida Education Association (FEA) director, had made a point then about how the Florida legislature could generate $500 million a year by not requiring any school district to reduce property taxes. Another $250 million could be reallocated from the “Best and Brightest” bonuses teachers receive currently to overall salary increases. Those were two potential ways to get overall better salaries, she argued (TBT).
Additionally, according to the state education authorities, there is already a critical shortage in teachers in the Sunshine State. In January 2019, just halfway through that school year, there were 2,217 positions needing filled across the state (OS). These problems are not unique to Florida, but Florida can offer solutions. However, before determining the solution, there must be an identification as to why the problem exists.
Teachers leaving the field typically do so from situations including working conditions, student behavior, lacking resources, test performance pressure, long hours, and more. However, there are two issues in particular that can and should be addressed in the State of Florida.
The first is salary. The primary issue being the merit-pay law. An increase in base salary is a great step in the right direction, but merit-pay laws in Florida are not fair, and does not necessarily reflect a teachers positive impact to a child. Florida is not the only state to tie teacher evaluations to salary, but it is the only state today that ties salary to student test scores. What is remarkable about the law is that not every topic is tested, so for teachers that teach courses that are not part of the tests, their salary increase is completely dependent upon how the other teachers do, even if their own students fair well. And oddly, 60% of all Florida teachers don’t teach a subject covered by the testing. So a minority of teachers’ students’ performance in only a few subjects dictates the majorities of teachers’ salary (HP) increases. The merit-pay laws were enacted in 2011 by then Governor Rick Scott to try and get more federal funding through the Obama-era now-defunct Race to the Top Fund (Politico) which granted states funding for their education systems in return for innovative reforms.
The other part of the criteria is set by principal evaluations. To be clear, other states do evaluate teachers based on test scores, but their salaries are not impacted by variances within those scores. Regardless of what the base salary is, this practice is certainly not fair, especially to the other teachers who have no control. The State of Florida also used to incorporate cost of living into salaries for teachers in expensive districts, but ended that practice (MH).
Additionally, although Florida is raising the minimum wage for newer teachers, which should recruit more to join the field, that does not solve a second critical variable for teacher retention, which is support. According to the Learning Policy Institute, an independent research group, teachers who have a lack of support leave the profession at more than double the rate of those who do receive adequate support.
Policy ideas put forth by the Learning Policy Institute for support includes investing in high quality principals, using teacher feedback to guide school improvements, provide mentoring programs to new teachers, and break down cross-district red tape that can hamper a teacher’s decision to switch districts in a region. These changes can lead to better retention.
As teacher’s wages shift around, programs get cut, and schools shave costs both because of COVID-19 and pre-existing issues, one should ask if we are creating an environment where our brightest want to be teachers, or an environment where the brightest want to leave teaching.