Rae Ann McNeilly, Executive Director of Taxpayers United for America, was quoted in the Sun Sentinel on a proposed pay hike for Florida teachers.
After years of frozen wages, pension reforms that ate into their pay and a new accountability system that will base pay on performance, the subject of teacher salaries in Florida is gaining new political attention.
State Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, and state Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, have filed twin bills in the Legislature to give teachers an average $10,000 pay increase, which they say would make them level with their national counterparts.
Gov. Rick Scott, in a separate plan, wants to give all teachers a $2,500 pay raise.
But some taxpayer groups and human resource consultants question the need for the latest proposals.
“[Teachers] are paid real well,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, executive director of Taxpayers of America. “Florida’s been hit harder than many of the states. I can’t see how it would be reasonable to raise anybody’s wages until Florida has more of a recovery.”
Local teachers unions, however, said after several years of cuts to education funding, it’s about time the state prioritizes teacher pay.
“We’ve lost more than salaries in this whole situation; we’ve lost respect for our profession,” said Debra Wilhelm, president of the Classroom Teachers Association in Palm Beach County, which represents more than 12,000 teachers. “They’re working two jobs; some of them are even on food stamps.”
Florida currently ranks 45th in average teacher salary when compared to other states. The estimated average salary last year was $46,232; nationally it was $56,643, according to U.S. Department of Education.
In Palm Beach County, teacher salaries range from $38,000 to $71,000; in Broward it’s $39,180 to $71,250. The pay scale generally assumes a teacher works 37.5 hours a week for 196 days, with summers and holidays off. But the National Education Association found they actually an average 50 hours a week.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, firefighters, police officers and nurses in the Miami metropolitan area who work year-round make more than teachers, averaging in the high $60,000 range. Social workers and retail supervisors, on average, make less — between $42,000 and $44,000 a year.
“I’m not sure that [teachers] are worse off than anybody else,” said Sara McAuley, board member of WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resource association. “Everybody is taking a hit right now.”
Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, however, said teachers deserve more compensation.
“We need to pay them to the point where they are esteemed again,” he said. He cautioned, though, that additional money should be tied to classroom impact and student achievement, not just longevity.
Teacher salary scales are based on experience, but Broward froze its wages for four years, Palm Beach County for five.
This year, both the Broward and Palm Beach county districts gave raises. In Palm Beach County, they averaged about a 3 percent raise; in Broward, it was slightly less than 2 percent.
Toni Freeborn, 51, a teacher at Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs, makes $39,000 a year, just $300 more than when she started six years ago.
Every day, she teaches seven classes, with a half-hour lunch break. She arrives 10 minutes before 7 a.m. but usually doesn’t leave until after 5 p.m. — often dragging home assignments to grade.
“We don’t get paid for the extra hours that we work,” Wilhelm said. “You have professions where you stay longer and you get paid overtime. Teachers don’t get overtime.”
Instead, many take second jobs.
Nicole Di Dio, 33, has been teaching at Westpine Middle School in Sunrise for three years. She works an additional 20 hours as an assistant manager at a massage therapy office to help pay off student loans.
“It’s hard to keep up with rent and car payments,” she said.
Gary Itzkowitz, of the 14,000-member Broward Teachers Union, said at least half his members have two jobs, “particularly some of our younger teachers that have been stuck on the lower range.”
McAuley said teachers make less than others with comparable college degrees. “Teachers start off with a lower base than someone in human resources or marketing,” she said.
But McNeilly claims that when you factor in pensions, health benefits and tenure, teacher compensation exceeds other jobs.
While the Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that public employees must pay 3 percent of their salaries toward their pension, McNeilly said those in the private sector pay about 7.5 percent toward Social Security.
“They’re one of the best-paid professions with the greatest job security … they’re guaranteed full coverage on their health care, guaranteed retirement benefits,” she said.
But better benefits doesn’t justify lower pay, McAuley said. “It’s just a slight offset.”
Rader, the state House member, said it was time teachers in Florida get a fair wage and respect for their work — in the form of a $10,000 raise.
“In reality, when you go through all the facts, with the time they put in during the year, and the money they make, it’s not nearly as much time off in the summer that people think,” he said. “Our teachers severely have been making under the national average for many, many years.
“I realize it’s a substantial amount of money,” he said. But he remained hopeful the governor was starting to shift his focus toward education.
“The Legislature, when it makes priorities, it always finds the resources,” Rader said. “I would say let’s cut back in FCAT testing.”
Scott, meanwhile, said there was “no better investment” than giving teachers a $2,500 pay hike. He called teachers the “heart of our success” as schools have continued to perform well on standardized tests despite recent cuts. The $480 million salary increase for teachers is part of his latest pitch to boost education funding by $1.25 billion next year.
Freeborn says until teachers get good news from Tallahassee, she will continue to bring a brown-bag lunch to school every day.
“I don’t go out,” she said. “There’s no extra money.”