by Max Eden
The pandemic has made it clear to parents that teachers’ unions don’t represent the interests of students. And while, in theory, the union should serve the interests of teachers, in practice they have another master: the Democratic Party. When these interests don’t align, the result can be fascinating political contortions – as when Florida teachers’ unions fought against pay raises provided by the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.
In October 2019, DeSantis declared that 2020 would be the “year of the teacher.” Despite the massive budgetary uncertainty presented by COVID, in March 2020 DeSantis requested $600 million for teacher raises and $300 million for teacher bonuses. The legislature delivered $500 million for raises and $100 million for bonuses, which Jacob Oliva, chancellor of the Division of Public Schools in the Florida Department of Education, described as “the single largest compensation increase ever in Florida and a statement to the nation that Florida is elevating the teaching profession.”
One might expect teachers’ unions to applaud DeSantis and call on other governors to follow his lead. Instead, some local teachers’ unions actually fought against the raises, effectively keeping money out of their own members’ pockets.
The law DeSantis signed left little ambiguity about how school districts were to allocate the money for teacher raises and bonuses. Districts were required to use 80% of the funds to raise teachers’ base salary to “at least $47.5K or to the maximum achievable based on each district’s allocation,” and devote 20% to give raises to veteran teachers. Each school district was required to submit an approved salary-distribution plan by October 1, 2020, so that teachers could begin receiving their increased pay that month.
Despite the law’s specific delineations, local teachers’ unions used their power over collective bargaining to try to get school district leaders to commit to additional raises for non-teaching personnel, as well as additional raises for veteran teachers. Unions’ emphasis on non-instructional payroll is a major reason why teacher salaries have stagnated over the last several decades. Kennesaw State University professor Ben Scafidi found that between 1992 and 2014, even as per-student spending increased by 27 percent, teacher salaries declined by $1,086, or 2 percent. The reason: expanding non-teaching costs, at 1.5 times the rate of growth in student enrollment. If non-teaching costs had matched student-enrollment growth, then teachers would have seen a $11,128 raise.
In addition to the unions’ attempts to bake in cost structures that would do long-term harm to teacher salaries, their actions had an even more pronounced short-term effect: delayed teacher raises. By January 2021, six districts were still at an impasse with their local unions – ten months after DeSantis announced the raises, seven months after the bill was signed, and three months after the deadline for implementation. The last district didn’t finalize its plan until March, five months after the deadline had passed, and only after the state threatened legal action.
As Richard Corcoran, Florida’s commissioner of education, aptly explained it, “These same teachers would have loved to have the money that’s sitting there for them to get for Christmas, for whatever, for a car payment . . . The union bosses are literally fighting the clearly worded statute to get these dollars to our teachers.”
Meanwhile, even as some union leaders were still forcing an impasse, preventing teachers from getting their raises and bonuses, Governor DeSantis announced his budget for 2021, which includes $550 million for teacher raises – a $50 million increase from last year “to continue raising the minimum K-12 teacher salary to the goal of getting the average minimum salary statewide to be $47,500.”
Even Democratic State Senator Linda Stewart said, “If they’re trying for incremental increases, I don’t know that we can do much better.” Which leaves one to wonder: Why didn’t teachers’ unions applaud DeSantis and use his initiative to argue that other governors should follow suit? Why did they choose to fight, even at a direct cost to their members’ pocketbooks?
It’s hard to look at what happened and not suspect a political motive. After all, when it comes to school discipline, teachers’ unions proved willing to sacrifice the physical safety of their teachers in order to stay on the right (and by right we mean “left”) side of national political controversies.
It’s no more of a stretch to imagine that the unions decided to kick up a dust storm of disputes around DeSantis’s teacher raises precisely to prevent the public from noticing that a Republican governor, who is already being talked about as a 2024 GOP frontrunner, presided over a massive raise for public school teachers.
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Max Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where Hayley Sanon is a research assistant.