Florida needs to boost pay to make 2020 the year of the teacher | Opinion

Everybody understands the numbers by now. Florida is facing a severe teacher shortage. And that is an educational emergency because the single most important element that Florida public schools bring to the education table is the teacher. And we don’t have enough.

This results in high percentages of classes being taught by teachers who are not certified in that area — or those classes not being offered at all. According to 2017-2018 Florida Department of Education data, one out of every eight English classes was being taught by a teacher not certified in that field. One in nine physics and chemistry classes were taught by uncertified teachers in the field and one in 10 earth and space science classes were thusly taught. At the start of the 2018-2019 school year, there were 4,000 teacher vacancies in Florida. That could be higher next year.

Perhaps worse, however, is that there were 36 high schools (among those with more than 1,000 students) that did not offer any physics at all during this past school year. None. It’s obvious the disadvantage those students face if they want to pursue further education.

The way to increase the supply of quality teachers for Florida’s schools is by increasing the incentives for them to come here or stay here. Florida was ranked 46th on the National Education Association’s annual report of average teacher salaries that came out in March. Florida’s teachers earned an average of $48,168 in 2017-18, which was $12,294 below the national average of $60,462.

This is basic supply and demand economics. Our demand for teachers is growing because our dynamic state keeps adding people who want to come and enjoy one of the strongest economies and highest qualities of life in the nation. But our supply of teachers is low. To increase the supply, we need to pay our teachers more.

This is exactly what Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing for next year’s budget: More money for teachers. A lot more money. The Governor recognizes this critical need and many legislators do, also. As the Governor said, he’s not planning “just a little token, throw a few dollars here.” He’s planning substantive salary increases including raising the starting salary of teachers to $47,500.

The proposed pay raises won’t be just about more money, however, but also a plan to continue improving overall education. The details are still being worked on, but the theme follows what Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has been saying more months; that a landmark salary increase is being planned.

At least some of the money for the salary increase can come from the “Best & Brightest” teacher bonus plan, which the Legislature created in 2015. The goal of the plan was sound, but it is unpopular and in the current environment, not being effective enough. That could provide $285 million.

It is important to note that Florida’s teachers are actually doing an outstanding job, even with the shortages. This is not political pablum, this comes from more data.

Despite being a state that underpays its teachers by national measurements — which has caught up with us — Florida’s public schools rank No. 3 in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings. It’s the only Southern state in the top 20. Further, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Florida’s elementary school test scores put it nationally at No. 5 in reading and No. 7 in math.

Republican governors stretching back to Gov. Jeb Bush and through Gov. Rick Scott have emphasized accountability, and that has paid off. Gov. DeSantis and the Legislature intend to continue to require accountability.

We are obviously doing some things right in Florida, and a lot of that credit must go to the teachers faithfully carrying out their responsibilities in the classroom every day. It’s time to reward the professionals for those results. But it also time to recognize we are competing with other states for teachers and falling behind, and that means we must pay our teachers more than we currently are.

I encourage my fellow legislators to follow the Governor’s lead on this. We must act and make 2020 the Year of the Teacher.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.