Florida teacher pay raise pitched by Gov. Rick Scott, lawmakers 'poke holes' in the idea

It didn't take long for the balking to start.

Almost immediately after Gov. Rick Scott announced his proposal to give $2,500-a-year raises to public school teachers across Florida, lawmakers started poking holes in the idea.

Scott's fellow Republicans raised questions about where they would find money in the budget. The state is expecting a $2.1 billion surplus this year, but much of that will have to cover the rising costs of the pension system and federal health care reform, lawmakers claim.

Scott's teacher raises would tack on another $480 million a year.

Conservative lawmakers also pointed out that Scott's far-reaching proposal doesn't include any provision for "merit" pay — which means all teachers would get the raise, regardless of what kind of job they're doing in the classroom.

"I have a strong preference for basing the compensation of people on their performance of their job," said state Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart who chairs his chamber's appropriations committee. "I think people who do things well should make more money than people who do things in a mediocre way."

Yet teacher performance didn't play a role in 2011, when Negron and the rest of the Legislature imposed a de facto 3 percent pay cut on teachers in the name of pension reform. Pension reform needed to happen, but lawmakers

could have phased it in far less painfully.

I asked Negron why performance should be a factor for raises but not the recent pay cut. He replied by saying he didn't see the pension changes as a cut, even though they meant less money in teacher paychecks.

"I see no nexus between the two," Negron said. "I think they are separate issues."

He and other lawmakers aren't shooting down Scott's politically palatable idea, but they are lowering expectations for it.

"We're a long way from conclusion on anything," said state Rep. Gayle Harrell, also a Republican from Stuart.

Harrell, a former high school teacher, said she supports raises for teachers. But, like Negron, she wants to see at least part of the jump linked to teacher performance.

Both she and Negron said they want to let school districts decide how to dole out any merit-based pay hikes. Yet they reserve the right of the Legislature to insist that performance be part of the equation.

"It's the same in a business," Negron said. "People who produce more are paid more."

That's a common-sense notion. The challenge is finding a fair way to measure classroom performance when so many variables are involved. The jury is still out on whether Florida has found it.

Negron, Harrell and the rest of the majority in Tallahassee passed a teacher merit pay bill in 2011, and it's now being challenged in court. The state's teachers union sued to block it, claiming the so-called Student Success Act — which eliminated teacher tenure and linked teacher pay to standardized test scores — violates collective bargaining rights.

Scott pushed hard for the law, and it was the first bill he signed after getting elected.

We don't know Scott's motivation for pitching the $2,500 raises, but we know his approval ratings have been paltry.

Halfway through his first term, 52 percent of voters don't believe he deserves a second term, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last month.

We also know Scott's daughter is a teacher. Perhaps she's clued him in about some of the realities at the ground level. Among the less-than-attractive truths:

Florida ranks 46 out of 50 states in terms of teacher pay, with an average annual salary of about $46,000.

Teacher pay in Martin County ranges from $37,000 a year to $58,000, depending on degrees and years of experience.

Negron, whose children attended public schools, said he has "enormous respect and admiration for teachers who give it their all in the classroom every day."

As appropriations chairman, he will play a key role in the outcome of this debate.

"If we elect to spend a half a billion to increase teacher salaries, there will have to be reductions in economic development, health and human services and university education," Negron cautioned. "So that's the difficult choice that the Legislature faces."

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