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Florida Teacher Pay Raises: A Side Effect of Court Ruling on Pensions?

By now, Florida Gov. Rick Scott's Jan. 23 proposal to give every full-time classroom teacher in the state a salary increase of $2,500 has gotten plenty of attention. There is already speculation that Scott's budget proposal for fiscal 2014, which won't occur without approval from a GOP-dominated legislature, is merely a political stunt from a governor who is facing approval ratings below 25 percent, according to recent polling. Remember, the state's teacher evaluation plan that bases teacher merit pay in part on test scores is being challenged by Florida teachers in court, so he has a rocky track record with educators.

But there could be another big factor in Scott's calculations regarding the pay increase, which would amount to $480 million in the state budget. On Jan. 17, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state had the right in 2011 to mandate that state public employees, including K-12 employees, contribute 3 percent of their salaries into the Florida Retirement System (the state pension system) in order to receive those retirement benefits. Public employees challenged that law, saying that such changes in the retirement benefits system had to be collectively bargained.

The state had saved about $860 million in making the change, according to the Tampa Bay Times, but would have been required to pay back teachers and others the 3 percent contributions they had been making since 2011 if the supreme court had ruled against the state, and was prepared to do so. Now, with those savings safe, Scott may have decided that instead of simply hanging onto the cash, he would be able to "repay" the savings to teachers through a salary increase in his budget proposal, and not because the supreme court ordered him to, Ruth Melton, a lobbyist for the Florida School Boards Association told me.

"This may have allowed the governor to feel that he could release more funds or advocate for the release of more funds, because he knew they wouldn't be claimed as part of a settlement if the supreme court had ruled differently," she said.

Now Scott could have simply decided to hang onto the extra cash and not make the proposal to increase salaries. After all, his relationship with teachers is far from a source of delight for either side. And Scott may not be particularly disappointed if, after making the gesture, he saw his proposal snubbed by the state legislature. Lawmakers may decide that they should spend available funds, such as they are, on other school-related needs, such as new security, in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, for example.

But in Melton's view, at least, it was surprising that the supreme court did not strike down the 2011 state law. Scott could simply have decided to translate an unexpected fiscal "windfall" into a political one. She did stress that Scott's decision may not be entirely election-related, in the sense that he could be trying to recognize the voices from the education community calling for a change in direction.

"Ultimately, it is the legislature that allocates funds. And the legislature is facing a number of needs and priorities," she said. "We are hopeful that their eye will remain on education. But there are competing interests here."

Remember also that Scott's proposal is for salary increases, not one-time bonuses. So whatever additional funds the state has this year, it will have to figure out how to pay these increases next year and beyond if raises are approved.

Scott isn't the only Republican to propose teacher pay raises in 2013, by the way. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, on Jan. 14, proposed raising the minimum starting salary of Iowa teachers from $28,000 annually to $35,000, while simultaneously reducing the "teaching load" on first year teachers so that they can learn more from veteran ones. "Top teachers" would also be paid more in exchange for taking on more "instructional leadership responsibility."

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