Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced a proposal to spend $603 million to boost salaries for more than half of Florida’s public school teachers, introducing a new minimum starting salary of $47,500. Average starting pay currently varies by county and district, but the governor’s office lists a statewide average of just under $38,000, a number regurgitated from the National Education Association, the country’s largest union and special-interest group.
“We are experiencing a teacher shortage in Florida,” the governor said when announcing his plan. “My proposal to increase the minimum salary for teachers . . . will help alleviate this shortage and elevate the teaching profession to the level of appreciation it deserves.”
While the governor’s statement that Florida is in a “teacher shortage” is technically true, the realities of the shortage are more nuanced. And if DeSantis is using teacher salaries as a stand-in for teacher appreciation, he’s sadly misinformed.
In a thorough debunking of the “teacher pay gap” myth in the quarterly journal National Affairs, Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine note that only 5 percent of teachers report leaving their profession over “salary and other job benefits” and that teachers leaving the profession who move into the private sector take a 3 percent pay cut on average. If you include their robust benefits packages, Biggs and Richwine write, “Average public-education compensation exceeded private-sector levels by 22 percent” in 2017, the highest compensation premium ever.”
Florida’s teachers are not underpaid, nor are American teachers in general. Generally, their wages are market-level, and their retirement packages dwarf those of workers in the private sector. Teachers do get paid less than the average college graduate, but more than half of college-educated teachers received their degrees in education, one of the least rigorous majors offered on college campuses. (Reports from the National Center for Teacher Quality attest to the low standards many of these education programs have.)
Teachers also work, at the very most, just 83 percent of the hours that their private-sector professional peers work over the course of a calendar year. Why should someone with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education receive the same pay that someone with a bachelor’s or master’s in a STEM field or, say, accounting, considering they work more than one-fifth fewer hours each year?
DeSantis and others also note Florida ranks fairly low among the 50 states in average teacher pay. This is not a serious argument to raise salaries. Somebody has to be on the low end of average salaries. Raising salaries in State X above those in State Y just gives Y an incentive to once again raise its above X — and on and on ad infinitum. States with a low cost of living should naturally be where teachers are paid less.
Fortunately, the Florida is a relatively low cost-of-living state. Naturally, certain parts of the state are more expensive to live in than other parts, and teachers working in counties with high costs of living get paid more on average. This is why teachers in Collier, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Sarasota counties earn more than $50,000 per year on average and why teachers in Calhoun, Gadsden, Holmes and Madison Counties earn less than $40,000 a year on average. The average salary for teachers across the state is just over $48,000, while the average household income in Florida, combining all earners, is $52,594.
As for teacher shortfalls, the Florida Department of Education lists the number of courses taught by a teacher not certified in that particular field when calculating its teacher shortage numbers, not just courses where no teacher is currently available to teach them. Actual course vacancies are a much smaller number. Naturally, courses that are harder to teach have more vacancies. It isn’t shocking that more than a quarter of all course vacancies are for Exceptional Student Education classes for children with disabilities, nor is it shocking that there are only two vacancies across the state for French teachers or just five vacancies for drama teachers.
Instead of increasing all teachers’ pay, the state should increase compensation for those teaching in subject areas that are hardest to fill. Union mandates generally force Exceptional Student Education teachers, science teachers and math teachers to be paid the same as French or drama teachers or school driving instructors. Why would a teacher choose to teach a more difficult course if the pay remains the same? Differential pay could help alleviate shortages by incentivizing teachers to teach courses where there is more need for it.
The sweeping pay increase proposed by the governor is unnecessary. It would be expensive and woefully inefficient. The proposal would drive up long-term pension costs at a time when even The New York Times acknowledges these costs are depleting state and local budgets.
Florida teachers are adequately compensated, State legislators should look for other, truly effective ways to improve school outcomes.
Timothy Benson is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He lives in Stuart, Florida.