DeSantis calls for $200 million more for teacher pay, and changes to union operations

Tampa Bay Times | By Ana Ceballos | January 23, 2023

DeSantis said he will ask the Legislature to set aside $1 billion for teacher pay increases in the upcoming year.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday announced an education plan that, if approved by Florida lawmakers, would put more state funds toward teacher salaries and make changes to how teacher unions operate and negotiate teacher compensation packages in the state.

DeSantis’ proposal initially focused on teacher pay, but the governor later pointed out that there is a lot he wants to do to education and leadership at the local level. The governor called for changes to school board term limits and party affiliations as well as restrictions on teachers unions, among other proposals.

The teacher pay proposal, billed as a “teacher empowerment” measure, marks the fifth year in which the governor has made educators’ compensation a top priority. But this year, in addition to funding, he wants to target teachers unions, which state education officials have blamed for delaying agreement on teacher pay plans.

The governor said he will ask the Republican Legislature to set aside $1 billion for teacher pay increases in the upcoming fiscal year, an amount that would be a $200 million more than the current year’s funding on that issue.

“All that additional money can go to increase teacher salaries however the district wants to do it, and we think that’s important to both recruit and retain good people in the classroom,” DeSantis said at a news conference at Duval Charter School in Jacksonville.

If the money is approved, its goal would be twofold: It could continue to fund DeSantis’ goal of boosting the minimum salary for teachers toward $47,500, a goal that most districts have met; and it would provide more funding to go beyond that goal.

DeSantis added that if districts do not use the money quickly enough, they could lose it, a move that would likely put more pressure on teachers unions that are negotiating compensation packages that include other issues, such as health care coverage. The state Board of Education recently criticized eight school districts — Broward, Hillsborough, St. Johns, Seminole, Volusia, Escambia, Flagler and Gadsden — that had yet to complete their raise packages using last year’s allocation.

“The money, this billion dollars, we may say you need to use this by a certain point or lose it, because this haggling over it and keeping the teachers and their salary increase hostage to other issues, I just think it is wrong,” DeSantis said.

The governor said his proposal will also impact how teachers join unions. He said they are welcome to join if they want, but he suggested they should write their own checks and not have their union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.

“We want more transparency into how that is done,” he said. “We also believe that you should not have the school be a focus of school union politics and politicking and handing out literature and doing all this. You do that on your own time, not on the public’s time.”

School board reforms proposed

At the news conference, DeSantis’ proposal also revived a yearslong effort by Republicans to impose term limits on local school board members. He said he’d like to see those shortened to eight years from the current 12.

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“I mean, the fact of the matter is you get in there, you have ideas and eight years is enough to get your ideas in and to see some of the successes,” DeSantis said. “Some of the people that are there, get in there for 20 years, and you become entrenched.”

In the past, lawmakers have considered seeking voter approval to amend the state Constitution, which sets terms at four years but includes no maximum number of terms. The Constitution also does not include school board members in the section on elections that speaks directly to term limits.

But last year, Republican lawmakers and DeSantis approved a measure that set 12-year term limits, starting with those who won in the November 2022 election.

Some legal experts suggested the Legislature and the governor did not have the authority to make such restrictions, noting their posts are established in the Constitution. But DeSantis signed the measure into law, just as he planned to get more involved in local board elections, saying he was a “big believer in term limits.”

DeSantis wants to take the constitutional amendment route this year. He said he wants the Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment, which would give Florida voters a say on whether they want to shorten school board members’ terms.

He also suggested the constitutional amendment would allow school board races to be partisan.

“They have a First Amendment right to do that. They can identify with a party or not,” DeSantis said. “We want to embrace the idea that if you’re campaigning for these positions, you can identify yourself however you want to identify yourself and if that’s with a political party, you would absolutely be able to do it.”

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