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    Raise teacher pay, secretary says

    Education Secretary Jim Horne focuses on matching the national salary average, not on smaller classes.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 22, 2002


    In yet another sign that state Republican leaders are working hard to fight a popular but costly class size amendment, Florida's top education official wants to boost teacher pay.

    State Education Secretary Jim Horne says qualified and better-paid teachers are more important than smaller classes.

    Horne said he did not yet have a specific plan for raising salaries. But he has spoken recently of an ambitious goal: to raise average teacher pay to the national average in five years.

    The education secretary will discuss teacher recruitment and retention this week with the Board of Education, and he wants to see if the board shares his enthusiasm for a focus on salaries.

    "It comes back to teachers, and money needs to be a big part of it," Horne said. "Salary leads the way."

    Just last week, Gov. Jeb Bush offered a plan to build thousands more classrooms during the next five years. He offered it as an alternative to the class size amendment, though there's no guarantee the plan actually would reduce class sizes. Critics of Bush's plan say it doesn't address the question of how to attract more teachers for those new classrooms he wants to build.

    Horne's plan might be the other piece of the puzzle.

    Florida ranked 29th in the nation with a $38,230 average teacher salary last year -- $5,100 below the national average. The same year, Florida had the seventh-largest average class size in the nation.

    The Board of Education has talked about teacher recruitment and retention several times in its 15 months of existence, but not in great detail involving specific goals or dollar amounts.

    Horne said he wanted his board to devise an ambitious and specific plan -- one that especially rewards higher performing teachers.

    The apparent sudden urgency to make teacher pay a priority and the clear correlation with the class size amendment angers critics.

    "Now all of a sudden they're getting religion on teacher salaries?" said Jade Moore, the executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "They're so scared of this (class size amendment), I suspect there will be more changes in religion than there were during the Inquisition."

    Florida would not be the first state to aim for the national average on teachers salaries. Under former Gov. Zell Miller, Georgia aimed but missed.

    From 1990 to 2000, while Florida was increasing average teacher salaries by 25 percent, Georgia was increasing salaries by 45 percent. The decade of pay boosts under a strong economy brought Georgia to within $1,100 of the national average.

    However, Georgia has lost ground. From 1999 to 2000, the national average increased 3.8 percent, while Georgia's average teacher salary increased 2.9 percent. Under Bush, Florida beat the national average raise and gained on Georgia that year with a 4.1 percent increase.

    "It takes a sustained commitment," said Gale Gaines, the director of legislative services at the Southern Regional Education Board, which studies policies and trends among southern states. "Georgia made tremendous gains, and they were closing the gap. But it's hard to keep that up."

    Horne also has spoken of becoming more competitive with the southeastern states with whom Florida competes. Florida routinely loses teachers to Georgia and Alabama.

    That goal could be a complex one to achieve.

    For instance, Florida lost teachers to Alabama even though it was ahead in average teacher salary. That's because at least one Panhandle county -- Escambia -- still is well below the Florida average and below Alabama school districts with an average salary of $33,849.

    "We aren't competitive in any sense," said Bob Husbands, the director of the Escambia County teachers union. "We lose teachers within the state" -- to neighboring Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties -- "and to Alabama. From where we are, we can't even see the national average."

    Increased teacher salaries would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. For instance, if the state gave a $5,100 salary boost to teachers today, it would cost $686-million.

    By comparison, the class size initiative is expected to cost the state billions each year. That price tag is one of the main reasons that Bush and legislative leaders oppose it.

    Horne has plenty of reason to believe that increasing teacher salaries is a priority.

    When state teachers who left the profession were asked what might persuade them to return, the most frequent answer was better salaries, according to a state 2000 study. Seventy-two percent gave that answer. Smaller classes came in second, with 63 percent citing that factor.

    However, the state's annual survey of teachers who left Florida's classrooms indicates that low salaries is nowhere near the biggest reason teachers leave. The biggest reason was "personal" with 32 percent, followed by relocation with 28 percent, and retirement, 20 percent. Inadequate salary, at 7.4 percent, was just ahead of stress, at 5.5 percent.

    Salaries and class sizes historically are either/or propositions for school districts, especially during tough economic times. During salary negotiations, school districts and teacher unions often have to choose between keeping class sizes down and giving teachers salary boosts.

    The Florida school districts with the biggest average classes tend to be the ones with the highest salaries. For instance, Miami-Dade had an average class size of 24.7 in 2000 and an average teacher salary of $44,964 in 2001. Union County had an average class size of 21.9 and an average teacher salary of $30,047.

    Despite that traditional trade-off, some teachers reject the notion that it has to come down to one or the other.

    "It's not a trade-off between salaries and class size. It's a trade-off between giving their buddies tax breaks and doing the right thing for schoolchildren," said Husbands, of the Escambia teachers union. "It's not impossible to do something about salaries and class size."

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