Public schools, teachers: Worth fighting for

Teachers in Florida have never been paid what they're worth.

They've always made less than their peers in other parts of the country.

And in the past few years, salaries have dropped even lower.

The News Service of Florida reported last week that the average Florida teacher's salary has dropped by about $1,200 over the past four years — down to $45,723.

Even before that drop, Florida trailed states like Alabama, Texas and South Carolina.

Last year, Florida teachers made a whopping $7,000 less than those in Georgia — which raises an interesting point about competition.

Whenever Florida trails neighboring states when it comes to things like corporate taxes and incentives, lawmakers scream: "We must be competitive! We must be competitive!"

And then they break out their (your) checkbook.

Yet, when education suffers, the politicians respond with a collective shrug.

Such thinking is as short-sighted as it is simple-minded.

You can throw all the tax breaks you want at a CEO. But if she can't bring her top talent to a state with a solid education system, she's not coming.

And there's nothing solid about a state that's cutting sports, arts and classroom offerings, while trying to find legal ways to stuff more kids in the room.

Make no mistake: Florida has had solid gains in recent years on such measurements as graduation rates. But big cuts threaten that.

That's why Republican Sen. David Simmons has been asking his GOP peers to rethink their slash-and-burn policies: He doesn't want a backslide.

"Both of my parents were public school teachers," Simmons told me last week. "I grew up in a very, very poor environment. I understand the importance of an education. It's the way out of poverty and a necessary ingredient for any great country."

Simmons urged his peers to reconvene for a special session recently to restore much of the cuts his party made to public schools. He had found the money in what he called an over-funded "working capital fund" — and proposed restoring funding to last year's levels.

He was rebuffed by Scott and legislative leaders.

There are plenty of other places to find money, such as tax loopholes for special interests and high-paid officials collecting both pensions and salaries from the state.

One of the biggest untapped reservoirs is the massive amount of uncollected sales taxes for online retailers — something even Jeb Bush recently began pushing to change, since the current system puts Florida's brick-and-mortar employers at a competitive disadvantage.

The bottom line: Scott and the legislators could find the money to properly pay our teachers and fund our schools — if they wanted to.

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