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Teacher Shortage Challenges Florida Public Schools

Credit Escambia Co. School District
Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas

Florida’s 67 school districts have one, undesirable, common thread these days: their increasing problems in staffing their classrooms, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel.

The number of Florida university students graduating with education degrees has fallen since 2006 by nearly 5,000, while public-school enrollment has grown, by nearly three million this year. One of the core issues, perhaps the largest, in recruiting and retaining teachers is the paycheck.

“I don’t think you’re going to have any argument or debate in terms of trying to find a way to raise the compensation level for our teachers,” says Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “It’s something that superintendents work through each and every year.”

Thomas appeared recently at a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 Education, as President of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

“Speaking for Escambia, we’ve tried to give some sort of a pay raise every year since 2009. It’s not always been sufficient, but it’s all that we had,” Thomas said.

“Money matters; they want to be able to meet the needs of their families. They want to feel secure, but they didn’t go into teaching to become rich,” said state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

Stewart said in the not-so-recent-past, school districts in Florida were able to sit back and wait for a legion of teachers to come to them. But not anymore. Now, districts have to go out and find them.

“Where we find those [college] students, those high-performing students, and we all encourage them to go into teaching,” said Stewart. “

While teacher shortages have been evident for some time at the high and middle school levels, they’re now being seen in elementary schools, where positions historically were the easiest to fill.  Escambia County’s Malcolm Thomas told the committee that the numbers are no longer there.

“In the past, with the University of West Florida in our back door, for years and years we never worried about having teachers,” said Thomas. “Because they would always have hundreds and hundreds of teachers graduating. Their last graduating class in the fall, less than 50 teachers; I needed to hire almost 300.”

Because of that, the Escambia County District has begun an aggressive recruiting program, going across the Southeast. And beginning teachers are placed in the START Program.

Under START, every beginning teacher hired in Escambia County are assigned a master teacher who does not have classroom responsibilities. Each START teacher has 15 teachers they support and will be their “sidekick.”

Escambia County spends about $500,000 per year on rookie teachers in the START Program. Thomas testified that the landscape for teachers in Florida has changed drastically over the past couple of years, including a shift in salary schedules away from longevity.

“Now, we’ve got performance-based components that are required to be in those salary schedules,” Thomas said. “Just a few short years ago we had a system where almost every teacher received the same rating. Now you’ve got a system where teachers are going to range from highly effective, all the way to unsatisfactory.”

A number of education bills have been filed for the 2017 legislative session, which kicks off March 7. Among them, one that would curb what Thomas calls “over-testing” of students.