Teacher bonuses vs. salary increases: The debate continues over teacher pay

By: - July 19, 2019 12:13 pm

School teachers protest for higher wages at a Miami-Dade School Board meeting. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At Florida’s State Board of Education meeting this week, board member Michael Olenick talked about the realities of teacher pay in Florida.

You can’t use a teacher “bonus” to get a mortgage or an auto loan, he said. You need overall salary increases that boost annual teacher pay.

“I’m using the word ‘raise,’ Olenick said.

But as it stands now, bonuses –  not overall salary increases –  continue to be in the spotlight.

Earlier this week, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced a $16 million program to “supplement” – another word for bonuses – pay for teachers working in the most troubled schools.

Those schools will have high numbers of low-income students and low ratings from the state, meaning D and F grades in Florida’s school grading system.

The 2019 data on school grades show 157 “D” schools and 15 “F” schools, with most of those lowest-rated schools in Hillsborough, Duval, Polk, Broward and Orange counties.

The money will come from federal dollars used to improve struggling schools.

Teachers could get supplements up to $15,000 to work in those schools, based on high marks on teacher evaluations and other factors.

Every Florida student, regardless of their background or their family’s income, deserves great teachers who empower them to break down any impediments that encumber their life’s freedom,” Corcoran said in a news release. “This is another way we are leveling the playing field for all Floridians, and we are thrilled for the opportunity to reward our state’s hard-working teachers in the process.”

Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit this week was filed in Leon County Circuit Court over the state’s “Best and Brightest” bonus program for classroom teachers.

The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Education violated the law by paying bonuses “less than the amounts mandated” by law, by directing school districts to take out payroll taxes and other amounts. That meant teachers didn’t get their full bonuses.

The Florida Education Association teacher union applauded the lawsuit, saying in a news release that “today’s announcement (of the lawsuit) serves as a reminder that bonus schemes do not work. It is no secret that Florida’s teachers are paid amongst the worst in the nation — 46th in average teacher salary.”

“If the governor and the Legislature are serious about every child’s future, they should do more to address the significant teacher shortage Florida is experiencing. They must commit to investing in educator salaries instead of bonuses,” FEA President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently discussed teacher salaries in a South Florida television interview last month, saying, ““I do think the starting salary probably needs to go up and the state should help with that,” DeSantis said in the interview. He said he will be rolling out something on the issue, probably in the fall.

The average starting salary for Florida teachers was $37,636 in 2017-18, according to the National Education Association. In that analysis, Florida ranks 27th of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. and is below the national average of $39,249.

However, Florida’s average for all teachers — not just beginning teachers — is $48,168, which is ranked 46th in the analysis. That compares to the national average of $60,477 in 2017-18.


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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.