MAXWELL:  Does anyone care about the teachers?

6/23/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

O SOUTH PINELLAS

I have asked the following question at least a dozen times in columns during the last five years: How many Florida politicians care about the welfare of the state’s public school teachers? The answer is always the same: precious few politicians care.

State Rep. Ken Littlefield, for example, had the unmitigated gall to write a letter to the St. Petersburg Times castigating Florida teachers, some of the lowest paid in the nation, for lobbying the Legislature for more money during the last session. Is Littlefield living on another planet? Or is he simply contemptuous of public school teachers?

Like Littlefield, few politicians, including governors, ever propose the one thing that could change the face of teaching in Florida and, subsequently, improve the quality of public education overnight: substantially raise teacher salaries. Instead of doing the right thing, however, generation after generation of officials blames teachers almost exclusively for the woes of our schools and devises schemes to avoid treating teachers like real professionals.

Thus far, Gov. Jeb Bush is following suit. On Monday, after signing into law the nation’s first statewide voucher program, Bush declared, “I think we’re in for a renaissance in public education.”

Perhaps.

When Bush was elected, he had an opportunity to help teachers in a way that none of his predecessors enjoyed. Thanks to Florida’s settlement with tobacco companies, a booming economy and a windfall in federal bucks, he was blessed with more than $4-billion extra to spend. Bush made good use of some of the money, but he ignored teachers’ salaries. Think of what a well-thought-out salary plan could have done to make up for years of neglect.

The $47 that goes to each household and the $1,600 that goes to the average business under the $1.008-billion tax cut could have been earmarked for paying teachers, especially attracting new ones. But, no, Bush and the Legislature chose to go the symbolic route at a time when the state is beginning to suffer a serious teacher shortage.

A recent Times article indicates that Hillsborough county must hire 600 teachers before classes resume in August; Pinellas, 350 to 400; Pasco, 160. Bush has not said how he plans to help districts avert these shortages, except perhaps by giving students vouchers to attend private schools and laying off public school teachers.

Our man in Washington, Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, has come up with another scheme that will have limited success if his colleagues approve. He has proposed a bill that would give non-teaching professionals, such as ex-service personnel, with bachelor’s degrees up to $5,000 for training and courses required for certification.

On its face, the idea may sound like a good one. Like everything else that skirts the money issue, however, it casts teaching not as a profession but as low-wage public service. “The bill represents an effort to attract people to teaching who are not primarily motivated by salaries,” Davis said. “This is public service. You’ve got to really love kids.”

As Florida Education Association/United President Pat Tornillo wrote in a letter the Times, “Beginning teachers in some Florida counties are paid so poorly that they qualify for food stamps.” Does anyone, including Bush, care? What about Tornillo’s points that the average salary for a teacher in Florida, one of the most populous states in the nation, is nearly $5,000 below the national average, that teacher pay here ranks 28th nationwide?

Given our great wealth and impending needs, we need to stop playing cheap with our teachers. Look at some of the local numbers: According a Times analysis, the beginning pay in Hillsborough is $26,777 for 10 months for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. In 10 years, that same salary will rise to no more than $29,455. Pinellas pays the beginning teacher $27,000. In 10 years, that salary may rise to $29,950.

What must teachers do in Florida to get the salaries they deserve? Again, Tornillo has it right when he writes that “quality schools begin with quality teachers” and that “quality teachers deserve competitive, professional salaries.” Until the governor and the Legislature understand this common-sense truism, Florida will continue to have a tough time recruiting teachers and retaining its superstars.

We will continue to place unqualified bodies in front of our math and science classes. We will continue to cheat our students. Time will tell, of course, if vouchers are the answer. I am willing to bet that they are not. One real answer is giving our best and brightest college students economic incentives, along with a sense of professionalism, for becoming public school teachers.