March 20, 2013

Bucking Scott’s plan, Senate proposes merit-based raises for teachers

Gov. Rick Scott is encountering more resistance than he expected from fellow Republicans on his signature issue: a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for teachers.

Less than three weeks into the legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott’s signature proposal to give across-the-board pay raises to teachers appears to be in serious trouble.

On Wednesday, the Senate unveiled a proposed education budget that includes the salary increases.

But the upper chamber rebuffed Scott’s pitch to award $2,500 to each schoolteacher in Florida. Instead, Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, proffered his own plan to distribute the dollars based on performance.

“We want to make sure the plan is tied to some form of [student] achievement,” Galvano said, adding that he wants to let school districts decide the specifics.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has also indicated that he won’t support Scott’s call for across-the-board pay raises. In a statement Wednesday, he stressed “the importance of merit pay” and noted that “Florida’s Constitution does not allow the Legislature or the governor to set individual teacher salaries.”

Despite the resistance from fellow Republicans, the governor held firm.

“Our teachers are doing a good job,” Scott said. “I think the right thing is to give each of them a $2,500 pay raise.”

Scott blasted Weatherford for taking an “inconsistent” position on the issue.

“I find it interesting that the speaker is against the pay raise for classroom teachers, but he’s okay with an across-the-board pay raise for state workers and no performance funding for universities,” Scott said.

Weatherford, playing into the theatrics of the budget-building process, responded with a terse Tweet: “His staff should reread our budget!”

Scott has made across-the-board pay raises for all classroom personnel his top priority this session. The proposal would cost $480 million.

In some ways, the Senate’s proposed education budget represents a win for Scott. Galvano has set aside the full $480 million Scott had asked for. Some observers predicted the Senate plan would include far less.

The key will now be the House education spending plan, which has yet to be released.

House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he “should have enough money to be able to thoughtfully address additions to teacher salaries.”

But Fresen said it was too soon to say how much would go toward teacher raises, or how the House would propose distributing the money.

Fresen called the upper chamber’s merit-pay proposal “uncomfortably vague.” He did, however, praise the Senate plan for giving flexibility to school districts.

Galvano, Fresen’s counterpart in the Senate, stressed that the plan released Wednesday was not the final version of his chamber’s proposed education budget.

Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat, called the proposal “a good starting point.”

Sachs, who has opposed merit-pay provisions in the past, she said she was OK with the performance-based component because districts would make the final call.

“I’ve always been a great believer in home rule for our school districts,” she said.

Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers’ union, was pleased to see the Senate recognize teachers.

“It won’t come close to making up the $10,000 we are behind [the average national teacher salary],” Wright said. “But it absolutely is a beginning.”

Herald/Times Staff Writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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