TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Teachers, parents and their supporters brought the Florida state capital's downtown to a standstill Monday as they protested what they said has been a systematic attack on public education dating to the 1990s.
Thousands of protesters in red T-shirts, some carrying signs that said "I shouldn't have to marry a sugar daddy to teach," marched from the campus of Florida State University to the state Capitol, blocking traffic in the heart of downtown.
Some boarded buses in South Florida at 3 a.m. to be in Tallahassee for the 1:30 p.m. demonstration organized by the Florida Education Association teachers' union.
The march and rally, featuring national labor unions, was designed to focus public attention on what teachers claim is the Legislature's failure to adequately provide money for public schools.
Low teacher pay, high-stakes testing and a lack of support for instructors have fueled Florida's shortage of educators, demonstrators said. More than 3,500 teaching positions are vacant across the state.
How much do Florida teachers earn? In Miami, not even late-career teachers can afford rent. See our exclusive analysis of teacher pay
"There are 36 high schools with 1,000 students or more that fail to offer physics classes because they can't find certified teachers. And 1 out of 8 English classes in this state are taught by uncertified teachers," said Fedrick Ingram, FEA president, before leading marchers up a half-mile hill to the Capitol.
Frustrated with her pay, Orange County English teacher Rucsandra Bitere started keeping a log of all the hours she worked before and after school and on the weekends. Her log quickly passed 20 hours a week - but she's salaried, so she doesn't get extra money for it.
"I'm working 60 hours a week, and I'm struggling to pay rent," she said.
Florida ranks among the bottom 10 states nationally in money for students, with education spending below pre-recession levels when accounting for inflation. And the state is 26th in the nation for starting pay for teachers, according to the National Education Association.
"We've shown up, year after year, hoping things will get better, and all that has happened is our classrooms got bigger. We lost our librarians and school nurses. And it has come to this, where we say 'Enough is enough,'" said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, who marched with the teachers.
'Any talks of striking?' How a West Virginia teacher's Facebook post started a national movement
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is determined to make the 2020 session the "Year of the Teacher." DeSantis has proposed spending $603 million to raise the state's starting teacher pay, and another $300 million in bonuses for highly effective teachers.
Around 101,000 classroom teachers will benefit from starting pay increase, out of more than 173,000 full-time teachers, DeSantis spokesman Helen Ferre said in an email. DeSantis "is strongly supporting Florida's classroom teachers, particularly those educators who are younger and working in schools that face greater challenges. To suggest otherwise is an unfortunate disconnect with reality."
But legislative leaders from DeSantis' party have been skeptical of the plan. "When you put it as a one-size-fits-all then you can create some practical problems as well as some inequities," said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Teachers, however, call DeSantis' plan a "good start." They want pay raised 10% for all teachers, not just those starting out, plus school staff.
Teacher pay + housing costs: These are the best U.S. cities to live in on a teacher's salary - and the worst
Teachers are emboldened by the ability of teachers in Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and West Virginia to pressure lawmakers in the past year to increase spending on schools.
"And today it is here in Tallahassee," said Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers.
"This generation of teachers are saying, 'Let's do a reset. ... Let's do what the Florida people said they want to do: Fund a high-performing public education system,'" Weingarten said. Around her, thousands of red shirt-wearing teachers lined up by their school districts and grabbed water bottles for the uphill trek to the Florida Capitol.
Has #RedforEd worked? Some say Arizona schools haven't improved since they got more money
Led by a police escort, a steady stream of teachers flowed out of the city's Civic Center and up the hill to the Capitol. They filled the lawn and spilled out into the nearby roadway.
Melissa Francisco teaches computer science in Suwannee County. Because so many students have accommodation plans for special needs, they need extra time, some need to stand during class and some need her to repeat instructions. She said she doesn't have the resources or support necessary.
"Now," she said, "do you know I can start at Publix for $19 an hour?"
Teachers in America: No matter where they work, they feel disrespect
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida teachers rally over pay, protest salary in Tallahassee march