Florida lawmakers appear to be done with bonus programs. The House and Senate have unveiled their proposed spending plans for the upcoming fiscal year, and neither proposal includes funding for teacher and principal bonuses.
Melanie Berkin lives in Broward County, has been a teacher and social worker for 20 years and makes about $60,000 a year. That may sound like a lot, but 60,000 in South Florida is a lot different from $60,000 in other parts of the state.
“Twenty years," her voice breaks as she talks. "But I can’t afford my home. And I don’t live in a mansion. I thank you all for taking the time to listen. Please just consider veteran teachers. It’s important to recruit. But I think you’ll lose the people you need to retain.”
Berkin says she’s never qualified for the state’s Best and Brightest program despite being rated a highly-effective teacher for years. She was speaking to the Senate’s Education Appropriations Committee Wednesday. The chamber is moving forward with an effort to repeal the state’s “best and brightest” bonus program while also putting $500 million toward raising starting teacher pay, though not exactly in the way Governor Ron DeSantis wants:
“His original estimate was $600 million was needed to bring everyone up to $47,500. We have attributed $500 million but we gave that flexibility for veteran teachers which is something that wasn’t afforded in the governor’s proposal.”
That’s Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel. The “everyone” is starting teachers. The flexibility she’s talking about is an effort by the Senate to give districts that have already hit the starting pay goal the ability to roll leftover money to veteran teachers.
DeSantis’s “Year of the Teacher” push hinges on boosting starting salaries to $47,500. The Governor also wants a new bonus program for teachers and principals and he wants $300 million for that. In all, his education pay package is around $900 million. The Senate comes in $400 million short.
Republican Rep. Chris Latvala chairs the House’s education appropriations committee. House Speaker Jose Oliva was initially skeptical of DeSantis’ plan and questioned whether the state could come up with the money. Wednesday, Latvala rolled out his education spending proposal which includes $650 million dollars for teacher raises.
“Of this total amount, 500 million is provided to increase the base salary of classroom teachers for…a weighted state average of $47,000 which will enable Florida to have the second-highest average teacher pay in the nation," Latvala explains.
The remainder is given to districts to decide how they want to spend it on veteran teachers. The House figure still falls short of DeSantis’ $900 million ask because it too, doesn’t include a bonus program.
One group that likes what it sees so far is the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association. President Fed Ingram says the House and Senate’s proposals are steps in the right direction and he’s glad to see lawmakers may finally be listening when it comes to the bonuses.
“Bonuses in this state have not worked," Ingram says. "We’ve said it over and over, time and time again. And it seems some lawmakers are starting to get that message and understand clearly that hear it clearly that these are educators and people who want salaries that are contributable to their retirement and a more sustainable way of life.”
Ingram wants to keep that momentum moving, especially when it comes to ensuring those who’ve been teaching longer, as well as non-classroom teachers and others also get raises.
“There’s lots of time for conversation and build relationships and put presser where we need to. But our message is penetrating through. That our educators in the state are abysmally paid," he says.
The budgets still have a while to go before being finalized. Both chambers will still have to finish ironing out their respective spending plans, reach a dollar amount and then try to iron out differences. The budget is the ONLY bill lawmakers are constitutionally required to approve and unlike the federal government, Florida must have a balanced budget.