Educators throng Florida Capitol to fight for more money

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Copyright The Florida Times-Union 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, backed by Ambassador John Rood, announces that there would be refunds coming to families that have been paying into the Florida Prepaid tuition plan since 2008 and a reduction in the costs for new enrollments during a press conference in Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Thousands of school workers from around the state thronged Florida's Capitol on Monday to press Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.

Large crowds of demonstrators streamed into the Capitol's main thoroughfare, some hoisting signs beseeching Florida lawmakers to “Fund our Future.” Rally organizers said as many as 10,000 demonstrators would descend on the Capitol on the eve of the official start of the 2020 legislative session.

Florida's protest erupted amid a wave of education activism across the country over the past two years in states such as Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

The popular Republican governor has made the raises a centerpiece of his $91.4 billion budget plan, which also includes significant spending on environmental programs. His agenda may wrest control of key political issues — education and climate change — long championed by Democrats.

On education, DeSantis is asking lawmakers to approve $600 million to boost the minimum salary of public school teachers to $47,500, which would catapult starting salaries to among the highest in the country. Another $300 million would be distributed based on merit.

But the state's largest school union said the governor's proposal merely gives the illusion that he is addressing problems that have long plagued public schools, such as understaffing, crumbling facilities and low morale. The union said as many as 2,400 teaching jobs remain unfilled.

"The governor says he wants to raise entry-level pay. We have any veteran teachers out there?" said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the 145,000-member Florida Education Association, to raucous cheers. "We have any custodians and bus drivers, mental health service workers, counselors? The governor's plan does not include you."

He was talking to educators like Bill Hudson, an engineering and design teacher at a Jacksonville-area middle school who arrived at the rally with his wife, Theresa. As a veteran teacher, he already makes less than the minimum pay the governor has promised.