Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s Wednesday proposal to give Florida’s public school teachers a $2,500 raise has been panned by critics as a political ploy or even a bribe ahead of his 2014 re-election campaign. The Orlando Sentinel churtled, “We’re surprised he didn’t throw in a promise of dark chocolate, red wine and foot massages.”
It’s amusing when people feign surprise that politicians make political calculations. We have little doubt Scott’s flagging popularity — his approval rating is a dismal 36 percent in recent polls — is cause for concern in the governor’s mansion, but our sense of the still-fledgling politician is that popularity is not a guiding force in his decision-making. If it were, would he be pushing for the state-run Citizen’s Property Insurance to raise rates and reduce the number of policy holders? Risking the wrath of more than 1.4 million policy holders strikes us as a more risky political move than currying favor with 168,000 teachers.
Beyond the political calculus, the pay raise proposal strikes us a fair first move in restoring balance to the state’s education budget, which Scott and the Legislature cut by $1.3 billion in the governor’s first year in office. Not only have teachers gone for years without pay raises, a Scott-backed plan to force all public employees, including teachers, to contribute 3 percent of their pay toward their pension plan will take thousands of dollar out of their paychecks. Granted, a one-time pay bump won’t erase yearly drops in teachers’ take-home pay, but it helps make up lost ground and sets a new baseline for salaries going forward.
Some have argued against an across-the-board pay raise when reform proponents, including Scott, have worked to implement merit-based pay programs. Again, we have long said teacher pay — and employment — should be linked in part to the success of students. As those criteria are developed and tweaked to ensure accuracy and fairness, it is appropriate to make a tangible show of good faith. There will be some losers under the new merit-pay regime, as there should be. We shouldn’t be grading teachers on a curve and accepting a perpetual bottom 10 percent of underperforming teachers.
For the first time since the Great Recession began, Florida won’t be heading into the annual legislative session forced to slash services, infrastructure and staff. The rebounding economy has produced a projected surplus in the state budget and funneling $480 million into the pocketbooks and wallets of teachers will produce a sizable stimulus in the coming year. Self-imposed educational austerity in Tallahassee deepened and prolonged the recession, as thousands of teachers and support personnel were let go. We don’t expect Scott or legislators to admit they cut too deep, but it’s no coincidence the $1 billion added to the state education budget last year and this $480 million pay raise proposal nearly equal that $1.5 billion meat-cleaver Tallahassee took to school budgets in 2011.
Finally, the pay raise shows once again that Scott is increasingly hard to pin down. He is unafraid to change his mind or risk angering the very base of supporters who helped put him in office.
He sold Florida voters on his business acumen to win office. He knows an executive who can’t adjust to market realities will soon find himself out of a job.