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Florida Teachers Seeking Pay Boost Have a Big Opportunity

Florida's teachers are marching on Tallahassee today. As Fed Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, energetically declared in the Miami Herald, "The teacher rebellion is coming to Florida."

As I've written before, I have plenty of sympathy for frustrated teachers—especially in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Florida, where average teacher pay is, by any measure, lower than I think it ought to be. According to an NEA report that became public last week, Florida's teachers earned an average of $48,168 in 2017-18—that's $12,294 below the national rate. As Ingram points out, the state ranks 46th in average teacher pay.

Florida's teachers have a compelling case, especially in a state with a thriving economy, and Ingram's Herald op-ed is notable for its measured message and tone.

But it's also worth keeping in mind that the Florida Education Association has done a poor job over time of building its reputation for restraint or reasonableness. This is the FEA that famously mortgaged its headquarters during Jeb Bush's 2002 gubernatorial reelection bid in order to throw every possible dollar into defeating him.

And when you've decided Jeb Bush is an extremist and a mortal threat, you've dealt yourself a losing hand. One of the hopeful things about current efforts to fight for teacher pay is that teachers have an opportunity to do better.

After all, as I note in last month's The Line, teachers have been winning big in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Chicago. They've been doing so while accelerating the shift away from testing, accountability, and standards and toward spending and staffing.

This surge highlights a profound failure in "school reform" as practiced during the Bush-Obama years. As I wrote in The Line:

For reasons that were never clear, and that seem downright bizarre in hindsight, the reform coalition tended to focus on the problem of "failing schools" and "failing teachers." Predictably, lots of teachers—not just the "failing" ones—wound up viewing reform as a hostile incursion launched by those who didn't work in schools.

The signal success of 21st century reform has been the emphatic insistence that it was no longer acceptable to excuse poor academic performance by saying, "Those kids can't learn." This shift represented a vital, remarkable sea change. That shift did raise a question, though: If we weren't going to blame the students, then who was responsible?

Teachers sensed that the answer was simple: They were. Teachers got the idea, quite understandably, that they were being made into scapegoats, while parents, policymakers, dubious measures of performance, sleazy vendors, and bureaucrats were getting a pass.

In other words, reform felt to teachers like it was a giant blame game. Teachers were being painted as the bad guys, by people who worked at foundations and advocacy groups, even as their after-inflation salaries were in the midst of a real, two-decade decline. Meanwhile, reform seemed to ignore their practical frustrations when it came to things like inconsistent leadership, too much testing, or a lack of professional support.

In other words, the more reform succeeded, the more frustrated teachers got. This makes sense, and set the table for today's teacher strikes.

Now, it's natural that teachers who finally feel like they're being heard don't want to spend too much time worrying about what happens next. After all, the polls make clear that teachers have public support, their "reform" opponents have retreated or wandered away, and there's surging progressive support for new spending.

Here's the punchline, though: Just as the reformers missed their chance to build something more solid and sustainable, today's teacher activists run the same risk.  

After all, while teachers justifiably feel undervalued, taxpayers have actually been ponying up for schools. Even as after-inflation teacher pay was down from 1992 to 2014, for instance, after-inflation per pupil spending was up by more than 25 percent. It's just that those dollars went into administration and benefits. And, while talking points about "failing teachers" gave short shrift to the challenges or the responsibilities of parents and policymakers, schools do indeed need to do better in all sorts of ways.

Hard-working teachers deserve a big raise and talented teachers are profoundly underpaid. And there is broad support for raising teacher pay. At the same time, teachers should note that the public thinks teachers earn less than they do. In the 2019 Education Next poll, for instance, respondents thought the average teacher in their state earned about two-thirds of what teachers actually earned. When given the actual figure, support for higher pay dropped from 72 percent to 56 percent. Teachers enjoy real support but ought not overplay their hand. Or they're likely to face a backlash of their own.

The passions that suffuse education tend to get the best of everyone—reformers and activists alike. That can make it hard to forge real, lasting partnerships between reformers, policymakers, and educators; or teacher activists, parents, and taxpayers.

It would be nice, in Florida and elsewhere, if educators can find a way forward that halts this up-and-then-down cycle.

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