OCOEE, Fla. (AP) _ Gov. Rick Scott, who just two years ago signed off on a large cut to school funding, now wants to give every full-time school teacher in the state a $2,500 pay raise.
Scott announced the proposal Wednesday surrounded by teachers at Ocoee Middle School, just outside of Orlando. He said his proposed budget for 2013 will include $480 million to support the raises for full-time K-12 teachers, plus the cost of related expenses.
This raise would not include new funds for support staff, but Scott said there will be additional money for them in his upcoming budget.
“We had to make tough choices to get our economy back on track,” Scott said. “When the economy comes back, we can invest more.”
Scott’s newfound devotion to teacher pay raises comes even though the governor previously signed off on instituting merit pay for teachers and requiring them and other public employees to start paying part of their pension costs.
In his first year in office the Republican governor approved a budget that cut school spending by $1.3 billion. The Legislature last year approved Scott’s request to increase public school funding by $1 billion but left it to local school boards to determine how much, if any, would go to pay raises.
Despite local control of salaries, Scott said he believes the money will get where he intends for it to go.
“It will be allocated to salaries as it goes to the superintendents, and I’m very comfortable that the superintendents believe the same way that I do,” Scott said. “They know that their teachers are critical … And I absolutely believe this is going to happen.”
The question is whether the Republican-controlled Legislature will embrace Scott’s proposal in its current form.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, for example, did not reject the idea of paying more to teachers, but raised the possibility of tying it to the state’s fledgling merit pay system. Lawmakers in 2011 passed legislation_ which Scott signed _that requires school systems to adopt merit pay plans based on a new teacher evaluation system linked to test scores.
Scott made his announcement at a time when he is battling low poll numbers and confronting a possible challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2014. Crist earned high marks from the state’s teachers when he vetoed the merit pay bill that Scott later signed.
The pay raise, even if enacted, won’t be a complete windfall for the state’s roughly 168,000 teachers. The Florida Supreme Court last week upheld a Scott-proposed law requiring a 3 percent pension contribution out of the salaries of teachers, state and county employees and some municipal workers.
It means a teacher who earns $40,000 a year would see $1,200 taken from his or her paycheck annually to pay into the pension.
Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said he was encouraged by Scott’s proposal, but said it’s important to get a full picture of the salary situation for Florida’s school employees.
“A $2,500 increase in pay would certainly be welcome, but it’s important to put it in its proper context,” Ford said in statement. “Teachers and other school workers lost 3 percent of their salary in 2011 and saw another 2 percent disappear when Social Security and Medicare tax breaks expired earlier this month. But this is a step in the right direction because investing in public schools and the people who work in them is the way to create the workforce of the future.”
FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said average pay in Fla. is about $46,000, about $10,000 below the national average. The Department of Education lists Florida’s average salary for the 2011-12 school year at $46,479.
The $2,500 raise would still leave Florida teachers about $7,500 below the national average.
Similar concerns about the Scott’s plan were voiced by leaders of other teacher groups.
B Grassel, president of the Lake County Education Association, said the current merit pay system is still flawed.
“It’s fine that he’s doing it, but I still have other concerns,” she told The Associated Press. “I’m not opposed to merit pay if you’re doing it in a fair and equitable way. But if you’re still basing this on evaluations of these students that aren’t even in a teacher’s classroom, how can that be a fair and equitable way of doing it?”
Scott continued to dismiss suggestions that his merit system is an unfunded mandate.
“It’s incumbent upon the state to fund those programs that we believe in. At the same time, today based on the success that our teachers have had, they deserve this $2,500 across the board and we’ll deal with that … I want to make sure it’s fair to teachers, it’s fair to students and it’s fair to parents. So we’re gonna work on that.”