Governor Scott triumphant on teacher raises; protesters not impressed

05/10/13 Janelle Irwin
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The Florida legislature approved $480 million in the state budget for teacher pay raises. Governor Rick Scott closed out his statewide celebratory tour Friday at Tampa’s Alexander Elementary but was also greeted by a small group of protesters.

Governor Scott made teacher pay raises one of his top budget priorities this legislative session.

“I want these pay raises to be across the board for our teachers. The way we ended up, all of our teachers are going to have an opportunity for a pay raise up to as much as $3,500, but there will be flexibility with each school district.”

But the no strings attached approach to pay raises hasn’t always been the Governor’s preference. During his first year in office, Scott signed into law a bill that tied teacher pay to student performance. The move was unpopular among teacher’s unions. The issue was thrust into the spotlight again after teachers were evaluated based on a faulty system. Many teachers were graded based on test scores of students they had never taught. Scott said even though the funding for raises isn’t necessarily tied to job performance, the state still needs to make sure teacher evaluations are fair.

“I talk to teachers all the time. They believe in measurement. I think we’re always, constantly trying to improve measurement. We’re moving to Common Core which is supposed to be testing critical thinking and problem solving, but every measurement system we want to improve all the time. The legislature went along this year. We’re improving our evaluation system for teachers because we’ve got to make it fair for our teachers. Our teachers want to be measured. They want to be the best. This school that we’re in right now has been an A school for 7 years. These teachers want to be the best, but they want to be measured fairly.”

Scott has also been criticized by opponents who say he hasn’t replaced the more than billion-dollar cut to public education during his first year as governor. That same year, Scott also signed a bill that forced teachers to contribute 3% of their pay into their pensions. Protesters in front of Alexander Elementary including the Florida Consumer Action Network’s Tim Heberlein called the Governor’s new push to fund education a political ploy.

“Well it should be more. He’s been taking it back from the public coffers for the last two years and now he wants to give it back to the people and he claims this is a victory for Florida. It’s absolutely not. It’s just a guise of him running, just a kickoff for a re-election campaign.”

Scott was welcomed onto a small stage in the school’s cafeteria by two state lawmakers, some members from the Hillsborough County School Board and a half dozen teachers and school leaders. Hillsborough County School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia also applauded the Governor for his work ensuring pay raises for teachers.

“Every time I tell him, when he comes back to Hillsborough County he needs to make sure that he is bringing us some things that we can do to make better our schools, support our teachers and, most of all, help all of you. So, he’s done that and he’s back again and you know what, we need to all say thank you … Thank you Governor Scott.”

Among the cheerful young voices thanking Governor Scott was fifth grade student Ashley Ojeda.

“Teachers have the very important responsibility of shaping the lives of young people. Through their patience, strength and compassion, teachers encourage students to want to do their best while at the same time trying to make learning interesting and fun. These educators create a foundation for students to build on.”

After her, fourth grade student Nicolas Sequiera stood confidently atop a foot stool so he could reach the microphone.

“Successful educators make their students feel intelligent, capable and confident. They teach us to always be ourselves and strive to reach high and challenging goals.”

Sequiera introduced his favorite teacher. Teacher of the Year recipient Jeanette Lipstein said students at A-rated Alexander Elementary are nearly 90% Latino and from low income families. But she said that is not a challenge, it’s an opportunity.

“As a veteran teacher I can tell you, we did not enter this profession to get rich. We did not enter this profession to get compliments or receive awards. We are teachers because we want the children in this community to have opportunities and realize their potential. But, like anyone in any profession, we do appreciate it when our hard work and dedication is recognized and appreciated.”

Teachers could see a little extra cash in their paychecks sometime this year, but that’s up to each school district. School boards across the state must work those details out with teachers unions. The Florida Consumer Action Network’s Heberlein said he’s glad teachers will get a raise – his wife is a teacher. But he added that Scott doesn’t have much to celebrate.

“It wasn’t what he said it would be. He didn’t reach his goal on that. I blame his leadership on that in leading this discussion.”

The group of only three protesters held signs calling attention to another thing Scott pushed for, but failed to get – Medicaid expansion. The Florida House refused to accept any plan that accepted federal money even though the Senate approved a measure that would have expanded healthcare to cover more than a million low-income Floridians. Labor Unionist Scott Hardy criticizes the Governor for not using the weight of his office and is now calling on him to convene a special legislative session.

“Because there’s a lot of Floridians that are depending on him to reach out to the leadership in the legislature to expand healthcare to at least 1.2 million Floridians here in this state.”

Florida has until January 1 to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

As for teacher pay raises, the Hillsborough County School Board are expected to bring it up on Tuesday during a workshop on the district’s budget.

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