Educators throng Florida Capitol to fight for more money

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Thousands of school workers from around the state thronged Florida’s Capitol on Monday to press Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.

Large crowds of demonstrators streamed into the Capitol’s main thoroughfare, some hoisting signs beseeching Florida lawmakers to “Fund our Future.” Rally organizers said as many as 10,000 demonstrators would descend on the Capitol on the eve of the official start of the 2020 legislative session.

Florida’s protest comes amid a wave of education activism across the country over the past two years in states such as Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

The popular Republican governor has made the raises a centerpiece of his $91.4 billion budget plan, which also includes significant spending on environmental programs. His agenda may wrest control of key political issues — education and climate change — long championed by Democrats.

On education, DeSantis is asking lawmakers to approve $600 million to boost the minimum salary of public school teachers to $47,500, which would catapult starting salaries to among the highest in the country. Another $300 million would be distributed based on merit.

But the state’s largest school union said the governor’s proposal merely gives the illusion that he is addressing problems that have long plagued public schools, such as understaffing, crumbling facilities and low morale. The union said as many as 2,400 teaching jobs remain unfilled.

“The governor says he wants to raise entry-level pay. We have any veteran teachers out there?” said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the 145,000-member Florida Education Association, to raucous cheers. “We have any custodians and bus drivers, mental health service workers, counselors? The governor’s plan does not include you.”

He was talking to educators like Bill Hudson, an engineering and design teacher at a Jacksonville-area middle school.

“I think it’s great that the governor is trying to move the ball,” he said. “It seems there’s still no plan to address veteran teachers and support staff. We have teachers that have been teaching 15 years that still don’t make $47,000 a year. That’s absurd.”

Union officials said the governor’s $1 billion proposal is far short of what is needed to restore funding for traditional public schools that was lost in recent decades through budget cuts and diversion to voucher programs and charter schools.

The union is calling on the governor to increase his legislative request to $2.4 billion for the current legislative session and similar amounts annually for the rest of the decade.

The money would be used to fund 10% raises across the board — not only for teachers but also for other school employees.

As Monday’s rally extended deeper into the afternoon, the Senate Education Committee meeting nearby approved the governor’s proposal in principle. The bill lacked details, including an amount, but called for teacher raises.

“This is really a preliminary conversation,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Manny Diaz. “We know this is probably going to be an item that goes all the way through the end of session.”

Diaz acknowledged the complexity of the matter, including the possibility of pay inequities: Veteran teachers may not get pay increases and raises could differ around the state because of the varying cost of living.

“The idea of raising first-year teacher salary has many of us concerned because it means that if you are above a certain threshold you will get no raise,” said Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County teachers union.

Katz said he has been teaching in Palm Beach County for 12 years and his base salary is $47,350. He said under DeSantis’ proposal, he would get a $150 raise while a new hire’s salary would be bumped up $6,500.

Senate Democrats unveiled their own funding proposal Monday along those lines, arguing that the governor’s plan ignores veteran educators as well as non-teaching staff. Their plan would allocate the same amount of money proposed by the governor, but would spread the money across all job classifications.

Union officials said 17 busloads of school employees were en route to Tallahassee for Miami. In Polk County, about 1,600 teachers requested time off to the attend the rally, prompting state school officials to send out an email reminding educators that a concerted walkout could constitute an illegal strike.

The rally has drawn national attention, including from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Florida teachers are rallying for fair pay and better funding for schools, and they won’t be intimidated or undermined,” Warren said in a tweet.

When the governor unveiled his proposed budget last fall, he declared it the “year of the teacher.”

The governor is strongly supporting Florida’s teachers, especially younger ones that face the greatest challenges in the classroom, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said. “To suggest otherwise is an unfortunate disconnect with reality.”

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