The recent National Teacher Appreciation Week took on extra meaning for Hillsborough County educators. It not only served as an acknowledgment of educators who positively impact students and help build the future of our state and country, but as a reminder of the many struggles educators and families have had to overcome during the pandemic.
Now more than ever, we need to support public education and our teachers who continue to give our students their all in the face of mounting challenges. But when it comes to supporting Hillsborough students, politicians in Tallahassee are playing party politics with our children’s education.
It’s widely accepted that music education plays a role in improving a student’s academics, especially in the studies of math and science. Despite the well-documented benefits of music education, right here in Hillsborough, we have a school whose music department has operated for 28 years without any financial support from the state. Compounding their challenges, the school is one of many nationwide that has lost a full-time music teacher this year. But thanks to persistent and generous parents, the school’s PTA was finally able to close the funding gap this year by raising $16,000 to revamp the music department.
These funds will go towards new instruments, storage, guitar stands and more. These parents understand that when we don’t properly fund our children’s musical education, we are taking away the things that engage and inspire our kids and help them live up to their fullest potential. These are a few of the many reasons why we desperately need fully funded schools, higher teacher pay, and smaller class sizes.
Democrats are championing these issues in public education locally and across the country. In early 2021, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), was signed into law providing a $122 billion investment in schools so they could safely reopen, hire more teachers and address learning loss and students’ mental health needs.
Unfortunately, the message from Tallahassee Republicans tells a very different story — one that is hurting our schools, teachers and students. Last October, it was reported that Florida was the only state in the entire country not to apply for federal school funding through the ARP, causing us to miss out on $2.3 billion for our schools. Though the funding belatedly came to our state, the hits to Florida schools from Tallahassee did not end there.
Instead of fairly funding schools, the Legislature punished Hillsborough County and other school districts that had mask mandates by making them ineligible for $200 million in school performance bonuses. These bonuses came out of the pockets of school districts like Hillsborough that were simply trying to make the safest choice for their students and teachers.
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Our state is headed down an anti-teacher, anti-public education movement that is hurting students, and exacerbating chronically underappreciated and underpaid teachers. As a result, teachers are leaving their careers at alarming rates.
Teacher pay in Florida is simply not commensurate with the dedication and expertise teachers bring to our schools — and has not kept up with inflation. Teachers are making, on average, $2,000 less than they did 10 years ago. The average teacher salary here is 48th in the country, and per student spending by the state is 44th. The Learning Policy Institute is now projecting annual shortfalls of more than 100,000 teachers.
The pandemic has worsened the stressors on teachers and our public education system, and we are at a tipping point. According to a survey by the National Education Association (NEA) this year, teacher burnout is mounting, with a record-high 55 percent of educators considering leaving the field. Ultimately, the burden of this attrition will fall on the shoulders of students and families.
If we are serious about addressing this challenge, we must stop partisan political attacks on our public schools, invest in our public education systems, and improve pay for all our educators, not just our new teachers.
We must recognize the reality that educators who dedicate their lives to students often struggle to support their own families and overcome this struggle swiftly. Tackling and improving the teacher shortage isn’t just about fairness, however. It is about ensuring every student has qualified educators in the classroom, which is crucial to our children’s lives, as well as the fabric of our communities, state, and country.
State Sen. Janet Cruz is a Tampa Democrat. Valerie Licata is a public school advocate and mom of two elementary-age children who works in nonprofit fundraising.