Putting Education Reform To The Test

Teachers Believe Income Is Out of Their Hands

Joe Raedle / Getty News Images

Teachers rally in March to protest budget cuts, including requiring teachers to take a three percent pay cut to pay for pensions.

First grade teacher Elton Wright feels powerless.

He and his wife, also a teacher, are absorbing a 3 percent cut in pay required earlier this year by the Florida Legislature.

“People are angry,” said Wright, who teaches at Eagle’s Nest Elementary School in Orange County. “They feel as though this was forced on them. There were no options.”

Wright says he didn’t get into teaching for the money. He was willing to sacrifice take-home pay in exchange for benefits, such as a pension and good health insurance.

“We took less to get more,” Wright said.

But with the three percent cut going to defray the state’s pension costs, and increases in health premiums, that bargain no longer seems to apply. The Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit challenging the additional 3 percent pension contribution.

“We’re basically paying for the more but we’re still getting less,” he said.

How much do Florida teachers get paid and how much should they be paid? And how will new pay-for-performance plans impact teacher salaries, both short and long term?

Those are complicated answers.

Florida teachers are in the bottom third for pay by most national rankings, with an average salary last school year of $46,708, according to the Florida Department of Education.

That’s almost $8,000 less than the national average. The National Education Association ranked Florida salaries 37th lowest in the nation last year.

Salaries have remained flat for the past four years.

Teachers argue they make less than most professions requiring a college degree, including engineering or accounting. And in general, public sector workers are paid about 10 percent less than their college-educated counterparts in the private sector.

But when pay, health insurance and pensions are added in, the average teacher compensation of more $57,000 is about 10 percent more than the average Floridian’s compensation, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

But They Still Have A Job

Of course, none of this data takes into account merit pay, the 3 percent cut, or the lingering effects of the slow economy on district budgets.

Some districts, such as Broward, are laying off teachers. Others are requiring teachers and staff take unpaid time off.

Some, such as Hillsborough, have avoided pay cuts, furloughs or job cuts.

In Collier County, teachers are asking the district to make up the state-mandated pay cut for pensions by giving teachers raises.

District officials have so-far balked, offering only a one-time 2 percent bonus. They’re in the midst of contract negotiations with teachers.

Offering raises, said Michele LaBute, Collier County schools’ chief operating officer, would mean tapping savings the district is holding in case the economic recovery fails.

LaBute said district officials are concerned how pay cuts are affecting teacher attitudes – and they’re doing their best to compensate.

“We’re concerned about morale and spirit,” LaBute said of the one-time bonus. “It’s more than a lot of people are getting.”

“Up To The Student”

The teacher salary debate has another new issue this year: performance pay.

Under a new law approved by lawmakers earlier this year, every Florida school district must begin developing a system to rate teacher performance and then reward the best-performing teachers with bonuses. Those systems must be in place by 2014.

Advocates say the long-term goal is to raise teaching salaries to entice people into the field who might have chosen business, law or some other field. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he believes teachers should be paid between $60,000 and $150,000 a year.

The performance pay system could allow good teachers to recoup the pay cut in districts that will begin paying bonuses this year.

The system will work differently in each county. Hillsborough County is planning widespread but smaller bonuses, while Miami-Dade schools has more of a lottery approach, with some small bonuses and a handful of top bonuses of $25,000.

“I feel a sense of frustration as someone with a young family…I can’t say I’m surprised this was coming and I’ll have to make do.”

-Hillsborough County sixth grade teacher Ryan Kinser

The possibility of merit pay provides little comfort to Ryan Kinser, a 6th grade language arts and reading teacher at Hillsborough County’s Walker Middle School.

Kinser feels those bonuses, much like the pay cuts, are out of his hands. Half of his evaluation depends on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, he said.

“We don’t have a great deal of autonomy over whether or not we receive a merit pay bonus. That’s up to the student,” Kinser said. “Merit pay is not an incentive that many of us are looking forward to.”

Kinser said some older colleagues have said they may leave teaching, while younger colleagues are becoming coaches or taking on second jobs to make up the lost income.

Entering his sixth year of teaching after leaving the private sector, Kinser said he saw the pension debate on the horizon. As of January, Florida was the only state where no one in the state retirement system had to contribute toward their pension.

“I feel a sense of frustration as someone with a young family,” Kinser said. “I can’t say I’m surprised this was coming and I’ll have to make do.”


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