Florida voters support raising teacher pay, teachers union poll shows

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Florida voters overwhelmingly support increasing pay for Florida’s public school teachers. That’s according to new polling data collected by Clearview Research and commissioned by the Florida Education Association – the state’s largest teacher union.

Today, Florida’s public education spending per pupil and average teacher salary rank near dead-last nationally. It’s one of just a few states with an average pay of less than $50,000. This latest poll, representing opinions from both parents and non-parents, shows that Floridians overwhelmingly support changing that. Out of 750 Floridians surveyed earlier this month, 92% said they agree Florida should pay its teachers more, “so that Florida can have stronger and better schools.”

According to the FEA, the poll shows a 20-point jump in strong support for higher teacher pay, compared to similar polling data from the same time last year. That’s even as voters’ faith in Florida’s public education saw a 26-point drop, with the largest shift coming from GOP women.

Local support for higher teacher pay

The Florida Education Association, and its local chapters, say that increasing teacher pay is essential for ensuring a strong public education system. Last week, Rob Kriete of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA) told WMNF it’s “criminal” that the state continues to underfund public education. Especially as Republican leaders, including Governor Ron DeSantis, boast of Florida’s booming economy. “Our schools are always the canary in the coal mine, I would say, for the socioeconomic health of our neighborhoods,” said Kriete. “And they’re letting them die on the vine because they’re not doing what they actually need to do – which is fund highly effective and strong public schools.”

Paula Stephens, who’s a member of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association (PCTA), teaches first graders at Eisenhower Elementary School in Clearwater. She’s taught for 24 years, and has a daughter who’s also now working as a teacher. As Florida’s public schools face ongoing staffing shortages, Stephens told WMNF she believes that teacher pay, and stringent rules and regulations from Tallahassee, are partially to blame.

“Beginning teacher salary isn’t enough for someone to live on their own now,” she said. “With all the challenges and all the restrictions that Tallahassee has put on salaries, and that salaries have to be paid a certain way, it has basically crunched up the salary schedules” for new and veteran teachers like herself.

According to the FEA, Florida has more than 4,000 teacher vacancies and 5,000 support staff vacancies statewide. Teachers say that exhaustion, lack of respect on the job, and a widening wage gap between teachers and comparably educated professionals are contributing to this ongoing issue.

Living on a teacher’s salary in Tampa Bay

While teachers grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of living in Tampa Bay has risen faster than teacher salaries. Average rent where Stephens, the Pinellas County school teacher, is can cost between $1,800 to $2,400 for a one-bedroom. “That’s more than a paycheck for a lot of people,” she said.

Research shows a large percentage of local renters are cost-burdened. Nearly half of St. Petersburg renters spend 30% or more of their income on housing. Within schools, teachers work to make the most with the resources they have. But without the material support from Tallahassee – or their cash-strapped local school districts – to match, it’s been tough for schools to attract and retain educators.

“Dealing with all the fallout from COVID, I think a lot of teachers are just like, I’m done,” said Stephens.

Florida voters on culture war topics in education

The new poll also surveyed Floridians on hot button topics currently dominating the GOP culture war in the state legislature. How America’s racial history is taught in schools. What place issues of gender identity and sexual orientation have in classroom discussions.

On those topics, Florida voters were mixed. Over 9 in 10 agreed that children need to be taught “both the good and bad of history,” even if it makes students uncomfortable. Sixty percent felt controversial subjects regarding race should be taught. But there was less support for open discussion of gender and sexual orientation. About 54% of respondents said such issues “should not be taught at all.”

‘Don’t Say Gay’ and ‘Stop WOKE’

Florida lawmakers have hotly debated these subjects in recent weeks. A bill that opponents have dubbed the, “Don’t Say Gay” bill, would censor talk of gender and sexuality in the classroom. Another bill entitled, “Individual Freedom,” targets the teaching of critical race theory, which is not taught in Florida’s K-12 classrooms. The bill closely resembles a “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” proposal from Governor DeSantis. Bill opponents say it would restrict teachers’ ability to accurately teach about race, discrimination, and other sensitive subjects.

“This bill cripples the ability of teachers to teach effectively,” said State Representative Dianne Hart (D-Tampa) of the bill, during a House committee hearing last month. “Every teacher I’ve ever encountered does their job, from not only an academic standpoint, but from a personal one. It is their personal experiences that they use to make the curriculum come alive for their students. Even more so for Black and brown teachers on the topic of race and discrimination, at a time where there’s already a teacher shortage.”

Both proposals are sponsored by Republicans, who hold a majority in both Florida’s House and Senate. According to the latest FEA survey, 70% of Floridians think legislators are overreaching on these hot button topics. But still, they persist.

Funding for Florida’s public education system

The Florida legislature is currently working out the state budget, which includes funding allocated for public education. The House has proposed a $105 million state budget. Included in that is a controversial amendment that would gut $200 million from local school districts that enforced mask mandates during COVID-19. That includes Sarasota County and Hillsborough, an already-underfunded district that ranks as one of the largest in the nation. The Florida Senate, on the other hand, is not pursuing these cuts. A proposal has been brought forth by the Senate, however, to raise support staff pay to a minimum $15 per hour – which the state teachers union supports.

Fifty-four years ago, Florida teachers led the nation’s first statewide teachers’ strike, due in part to an underfunding of the state’s education system. While Florida teachers are now barred from striking under state law, their demand for fair pay, for material investment in the quality education of students, remains the same decades later.

“My utopia is a world where we actually pay for appropriate and free education,” said Pinellas teacher, Paula Stephens.