Florida is currently facing a severe teacher shortage, with vacant teaching positions rising by 21 percent compared to the year prior and more than 200 percent since 2018. The state is experiencing a significant deficit in qualified teachers, particularly in subjects like science, math, special education, and English as a second language.
A growing number of educators are opting to depart from the field, culminating in an acute shortage of qualified teachers in schools, which in turn has given rise to ballooning class sizes. Through discussions with individuals involved within the state’s educational framework, the situation has been attributed to low salaries, overemphasis on testing and accountability, and inadequate support from administrators.
Last year, Florida TaxWatch released a report disclosing that departing educators largely attributed their reluctance to remain in teaching positions to issues with compensation. The report also drew attention to the fact that there were roughly 4,500 mid-year vacancies during the 2021-22 academic cycle, surpassing the number of newly certified teachers. Further data indicates that 10 percent of teachers who taught in the previous academic year lacked the required credentials.
In the current academic year, the Florida Education Association (FEA) reported 5,294 teacher vacancies and 4,631 support staff openings posted across school district websites statewide.
“Nearly 10,000 total vacancies in Florida’s public schools. Florida must address this massive teacher and staff shortage,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.
Given these challenges, it is not surprising that the question of whether it is worth becoming a teacher in Florida is being asked. While some may argue that teaching is a rewarding profession, the reality is that the current situation in Florida may not be conducive to attracting and retaining educators.
As per data from the job search platform Indeed, the starting annual salary for teachers in Miami-Dade County, an area deemed to have a high cost of living, is $50,571. According to the Miami Herald, in order to lead a “comfortable” life in Miami, one would require an annual income of $77,057.
Conversely, in low-cost-of-living areas like Jefferson County, teachers typically begin their careers with a salary of $47,810, and the living wage calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that the ability to live comfortably in the county requires an annual income of $34,569.60.
The dichotomy between the high cost of living and low cost of living regions of the state is evident, but teacher salaries remain consistent across the board.
In essence, it is affordable to be a teacher in the low-cost areas and rural regions of the state, but urban centers struggle to keep up with costs. For example, San Diego’s average teacher pay is $64,000, Seattle’s average teacher pay is $78,335, and Atlanta’s average teacher pay is $55,178. In Broward County, with a Master’s degree, teachers start at $50,435, according to county data. The county has an extremely high cost of living, with some of the highest rent prices in the nation.
“[It’s] definitely not lucrative,” said Spar. “The pay is so low that people aren’t willing to sacrifice their own economic well-being, so they’re leaving or not coming into the profession.”
Lori Berman, a Democrat state senator who recently filed a bill that would elevate the starting salary for teachers in Florida to $65,000, said that a big part of her bill is to “show some respect to teachers and show that they’re valued in the state.”
“The state is doing very well financially and it’s all a question of how we choose to budget our money,” said Berman.” I think that should be a priority because we are having a teacher shortage and educating our children according to our Constitution should be one of our major priorities. We can find the money in the budget and we should be using that money for education.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a proposal for a ‘Teacher’s Bill of Rights,’ which included provisions to increase teacher pay. If adopted, the proposition would increase funding for teacher salaries by $200 million dollar compared to the year prior.
Berman argues that DeSantis’ pay raise is insufficient, citing the example of long-serving educators who have received only minimal salary increases throughout their careers.
“The issue of salary compression is also a really bad issue,” she said. “We raised teacher starting salaries but people who have been here for ten years are making just slightly more than the starting salary.”
Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco echoed the sentiment, asserting that the cost of living in Florida has far exceeded what teachers are earning.
“I have thirty-year teachers just getting to $65,000. They all still struggle. It’s not enough,” said Fusco. “What are you going to do with the teachers that have been around forever that make $65,000? They’re going to be stagnant? They don’t have a true plan. They need to authentically look at what it really costs to live in Florida.”
Stress was also acknowledged as a contributing factor to the exodus, according to Fusco, who contended that teachers are not adequately paid given the amount of work they are expected to do outside of classrooms.
“Our day is a seven-and-a-half-hour day that we’re paid for, but everyone is working outside, before and after those hours, and weekends and holidays,” Fusco said. “You’ll see people working in Starbucks or a public library getting their typical work done. It’s too much work that needs to be done without authentically being able to teach.”
Spar further added that the issue isn’t only in teachers leaving classrooms, but also predicated upon getting people into schools.
“When you look at our colleges and universities, fewer and fewer students are choosing education as a choice,” he said. “They’ve written it off.”
Spar pointed to the University of South Florida attempting to cut its College of Education undergraduate programs in 2020 due to a lack of enrollment numbers. Though the institution ultimately reneged on the decision, enrollment numbers remain a concern and point toward the larger issue at hand.
In an interview with The Capitolist, Spar anecdotally told of a recent meeting with thirty-five education students, where very few students indicated that they planned to teach in Florida upon graduation.
“When you ask them why they want to become a teacher, it’s the same reason as everyone else: they have a passion for something and want to share it with future generations,” said Spar. “But then we asked them how many planned to stay and teach in Florida and there were only two hands. Two hands out of thirty-five plan to stay in Florida. I think that really underscores how bad it is.”
Spar revisited the topic of insufficient pay, arguing that the governor’s implementation of starting salary hikes has had a chilling effect on the earning potential of experienced instructors, thereby exacerbating the trend of migration within the field.
“The governor has directed dollars to beginning teacher pay, but that has been done at the expense of teachers who are in the system,” he said. “Beginning teacher pay has gone from 25th in the nation to the top ten, but average teacher pay when the governor took over was 46th in the nation. Now it’s 48th in the nation. When you look at average teacher pay, you could argue that teachers are doing slightly worse now. That’s a fact.”
Upon outreach to the Office of the Governor, The Capitolist was told that information regarding open positions in schools is a false narrative, as staff members pointed to ongoing recruitment efforts to fill the vacancies.
“There is a false narrative spread by media activists and union representatives that Florida had 9,000 teacher vacancies, which is completely inaccurate,” the governor’s office said in an email. “The Florida Department of Education has worked diligently to support Florida’s teaching needs and fill teacher vacancies throughout the state.”
In recent months, DeSantis has launched a series of initiatives aimed at attracting teachers to Florida, including a military veteran-to-teacher pipeline that allows men and women who served in the armed forces the ability to enter education spaces as instructors under the tutelage of a mentor.
Amid criticism that state officials were bringing unqualified teachers into schools, Military.com reported in December that just 7 veterans participated in the program, which was corroborated by Spar.
“When the governor said anyone from the military can come in and teach in our schools, they didn’t line up at the doors to come in,” he said. “People want to be treated with dignity and respect, and they’re watching the way teachers are being treated and say no thank you.”
Union leaders and lawmakers also turned to recent educational legislation recently passed by state lawmakers that they claim makes it difficult to teach in Florida.
Primarily, they positioned themselves in staunch opposition to the Parental Right in Education bill. In the legislation’s purview, it broadens constraints on sexual orientation and gender identity topics in schools from kindergarten to third grade.
The measure, branded the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill by critics, sparked national attention and outrage among many on the political left, becoming one of the biggest ‘culture war’ issues in Florida’s 2022 Legislative Session.
Recent legislative action has worked to expand the restrictions, broadening the regulation to encompass kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We need to stop vilifying teachers in the legislation we’re passing and I would like to see some of that legislation repealed or at a minimum clarified so teachers can be very clear about what their responsibilities are,” said Berman, who led the opposition against the bill last year, adding that she believes “the way we have attacked teachers lately, limited their ability to make decisions on their own and put them in potential jeopardy of being sued or losing their jobs because of very unclear directives.”
In an attempt to lure former teachers back into the profession, Sen. Victor Torres and Rep. Rita Harris, two Central Florida Democrats, introduced legislation in February to expand Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) eligibility for school employees and personnel.
The proposed companion bills aim to eliminate the time constraint connected to DROP eligibility while granting school personnel, such as teachers, school nurses, administrators, and bus drivers, the opportunity to opt for re-employment without affecting their retirement benefits.
However, some educators are questioning whether this is enough to make the profession more attractive. The State Board of Education has highlighted major teacher shortages for the 2022-2023 school year in critical subjects such as Reading and Math, which are core tenants in fostering the development of fundamental academic abilities of students.
According to Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, preliminary results for the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking (FAST) system are yielding positive results, with increased rates of satisfactory scores in reading and math across the first testing period to the second, though a macrocosmic view reveals low scores across the board.
In grades 3 through 8 for mathematics, 31 percent of students are performing at or above grade level, marking an increase from the 14 percent figure reported at the beginning of the school year. Meanwhile, In Pre-K through 2nd-grade reading, 36 percent of students are meeting or exceeding expectations, an increase of 16 points compared to the start of the year.
In analyzing the data, it can be seen that students are struggling to keep pace with education standards, adding to the surmounting burdens teachers are forced to deal with.
State leaders are currently struggling to find effective policies to address the shortage of educators, which has become a pressing issue in many regions. Nevertheless, there is a consensus among educators and lawmakers alike that two key factors are actively driving experienced instructors out of the profession: substandard wages and an ever-increasing workload.
The lack of competitive compensation for educators with significant experience is particularly concerning, as it not only discourages individuals from pursuing teaching as a viable career option but also causes experienced educators to leave the profession in search of better financial opportunities elsewhere.
Moreover, the added pressure of a growing workload, often without commensurate compensation, further exacerbates this problem, leaving educators feeling overworked and undervalued.