Teacher pay is the centerpiece of Governor DeSantis' budget

Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing a $1 billion injection into Florida’s public education system in the upcoming fiscal year, money that would largely go toward pay increases as the state deals with a teacher shortage.

After dubbing next year the "Year of the Teacher," DeSantis has made two major teacher-compensation packages the centerpiece of his education spending plan for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

The governor’s overall $26.99 billion proposed education budget --- the second biggest slice of his $91.4 billion spending plan --- also includes funding issues such as school security and mental-health services. The $26.99 billion total includes public schools and higher education.

“Of course, as many of you know, education has been probably our top issue that we have been talking about in the last couple of months,” DeSantis told reporters Monday, when he unveiled the budget proposal.

The proposal is an initial step as lawmakers prepare to negotiate a 2020-2021 budget during the legislative session that starts Jan. 14.

The governor’s biggest teacher-pay proposal would require the Legislature to set aside $603 million to raise minimum salaries of classroom teachers to $47,500 a year.

Also, the governor is pitching a new $300 million bonus program for classroom teachers and principals. DeSantis wants the program to replace the controversial “Best and Brightest” bonus program, which the Legislature created in 2015.

“We are getting rid of the Best and Brightest, which has gone through these iterations, and I think it was well-intentioned, but I don’t know if it ever hit the mark,” DeSantis said.

The governor says the proposed bonus program aims to provide incentives for classroom teachers and principals to work at schools in low-income areas. DeSantis said his plan would provide bigger bonuses to educators who work at Title 1 schools, which serve the highest percentages of students living in poverty.

DeSantis’ minimum-pay and bonus initiatives would be funneled through specific pots of money with explicit direction about how the money could be spent. Under state law, changes in teacher pay must go through school boards to allow unions an opportunity to bargain salaries.

The way the governor wants to fund the pay plan raised concerns from the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. In a statement, the union said Monday the governor’s plan is “removing pay decisions from local hands.” 

"We are excited about the concept that the governor recognizes that, in fact, we need to increase funding. ... We just think he's going about it in the wrong manner," Martin Powell, the chief of staff for the FEA, told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

The union has long been opposed to bonus programs, calling them "schemes" and not a solution for teachers who are seeking long-term financial stability. Also, the union has raised concerns that many school employees could be left out of the minimum-pay plan, such as school counselors and pre-kindergarten teachers.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, issued a statement Monday that described DeSantis’ overall budget recommendations as “encouraging.” But he also said the “the details of his ambitious teacher-pay program remain obscure --- not a small matter.”

House Democrats, however, touted the need to increase teacher pay.

“It is absolutely critical that we give teachers and school staff raises this year. This is the number one priority of the Florida House Democrats,” said House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, D-Miami.

“We look forward to working with Gov. DeSantis and our Republican colleagues to craft a budget that includes raises for our educators,” he added.

In addition to calling for more money for teacher salaries, DeSantis also wants to provide $100 million to schools in mental-health spending --- a $25 million boost over the current year’s amount. The extra dollars would be used to hire more service providers, according to the proposed budget.

More money is also being recommended for a program that provides voucher-like scholarships to students with disabilities.

DeSantis is seeking an additional $24.9 million more for the Gardiner Scholarship Program, which would be able to serve roughly 2,300 more students, according to the governor’s staff. The Gardiner program has drawn relatively little controversy compared to other school-choice programs, which did not get more funding under the governor’s plan.

Other parts of the proposed budget also would not see increases.

For example, the governor wants to continue spending $500,000 on stipends and training for school “guardians,” who opt to be trained to carry guns in schools. The controversial guardian program was created after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The proposal also would lead to a $40 million cut in the “Schools of Hope” program, which involves a type of charter school aimed at areas where children have been served by low-performing traditional public schools.

“The one-time reduction of $40 million is being dispersed into various other projects and Schools of Hope already have adequate funding to see them through this year,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, a DeSantis spokeswoman told The News Service of Florida.

While DeSantis’ budget looks to slash some money from the Schools of Hope program, $262.4 million in unspent money would still be available for the program.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.