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Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as Higher Teacher Pay Is Goal Of Florida's GOP Senators

Higher Teacher Pay Is Goal Of Florida's GOP Senators

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Florida school groups are applauding an education budget proposal by the state Senate's Republican leaders that would give districts enough money for an 8 percent increase in teachers' salaries, while providing financial incentives for teachers who agree to serve in the state's lowest-performing schools.

Unveiled on March 17, the proposed budget for fiscal 2001 would provide more money for schools—and less money for tax cuts—than either of the plans proposed by Gov. Jeb Bush or the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. The new fiscal year begins on July 1.

In addition to putting forward their budget, Senate Republicans last week took a step toward addressing the state's projected teacher shortage. Citing a need to fill an estimated 24,000 vacancies in Florida over the next 10 years, they mailed questionnaires to a sampling of the 72,000 residents statewide who are below retirement age and certified to teach, but not currently employed as teachers.

"We're asking, 'Why did you leave and what can we do to get you back?'" said Senate President Toni Jennings. "We've got to get them back into the classroom."

Officials from the state's teachers' unions joined Senate Democrats in praising the plan.

"It challenges the House and the governor, and we welcome it," said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "We're flush with cash, while our school buildings are crumbling and our teachers' salaries are thousands of dollars below the national average."

As of the 1997-98 school year, Florida's average teacher salary of $34,473 was almost $5,000 lower than the national average, according to a survey by the American Federation of Teachers.

Unlike the budgets proposed by the House and the Republican governor, the Senate plan would rely on a large surplus in the state's retirement fund for public employees to pay for salary increases for teachers. Thanks to a strong stock-market, the pension fund has grown from $73 billion to $103 billion over the past three years. The Senate proposal would lower required local contributions into the fund, thereby freeing up $241 million that districts could then apply toward raising teacher pay.

The Senate proposal also includes changes to pension rules that would allow teachers to become vested sooner and to retire with pensions based on the average of their salaries in the three years in which they earned the most, rather than the current five-year average.

House Republicans argue that dipping into the retirement fund could prove a mistake should the economy turn sour.

"Just because the stock market is up doesn't mean we ought to go and raid something," said Rep. Stephen R. Wise, the chairman of the House committee on education appropriations.

But Ms. Jennings argues that the Senate plan would still leave a $5.8 billion surplus to cushion the fund in a downturn.

"There is absolutely no risk or danger to the system by doing this," she said.

Teacher Bonuses Proposed

The FTP-NEA estimates that the Senate plan would enable districts to raise teachers' salaries by 8 percent. By contrast, both Mr. Bush's and the House's proposals would provide enough money for raises of 4 percent to 5 percent, the union says.

The Senate plan also includes a $75 million incentive program that would allow the state's low-performing schools to pay up to $3,500 a year to recruit or retain "outstanding" teachers, as determined by performance evaluations and student-achievement data. It would enable schools to pay $1,500 bonuses to recruit and retain qualified teachers in the fields of mathematics, science, and special education.

With roughly $600 million in tax cuts, the House budget proposal would return more money to taxpayers than either the governor's plan, with $578 million in cuts, or the Senate's proposed $200 million in tax savings.

Vol. 19, Issue 29, Page 22

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