Florida’s largest education union is warning of a growing shortage of teachers and education professionals, creating a statewide “crisis” in job vacancies ― though state officials have dismissed the union’s claim as wildly overblown.
The Sunshine State started the school year in August with nearly 5,000 teacher vacancies and nearly 4,000 openings for education staff, including bus drivers, teacher aides, cafeteria workers and janitors, Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said in a video posted Monday.
Instead of the vacancies gradually being filled, Spar said the shortage has gotten worse.
“We are now two months into the school year, and by this point, those numbers typically drop significantly,” Spar said in the clip, which was posted to TikTok. “However, this year is different.”
Statewide, as of last week, there were openings for nearly 5,100 teachers and more than 4,000 education staffers, Spar said, citing the union’s latest count of job listings.
“We are in a critical state here in Florida regarding these vacancies. We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to do more,” Spar said. The union has attributed the hiring shortfall to a number of factors, from low pay to stress and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The state’s Department of Education disputed FEA’s vacancy tallies in an email to HuffPost on Wednesday, though it acknowledged that teacher salaries are a long-standing issue.
Figures provided by the education commissioner’s office show 3,541 teaching vacancies at the start of the school year in August ― a difference of 1,420 when compared to FEA’s tally. This year’s vacancy total is 417 higher than the 2020-2021 school year, which had 3,124 teacher vacancies. The year before that, there were 2,563 vacancies.
The DOE suggested that FEA’s job vacancy count may include positions that have already been filled, that aren’t necessarily needed, or that are kept open as a means to collect resumes for future openings.
“The Commissioner considers Mr. Spar a close personal friend and, although unfortunate, we understand his position requires him to drum up controversy from time to time ― that’s part of his job,” said Jared Ochs, the commissioner’s director of communications and external affairs. “It is our hope that these tactics to generate fear and controversy does [sic] not drive high-quality teachers out of the classroom.”
Reached for comment Wednesday, Spar fired back at the DOE’s updated figures, not disputing the numbers but emphasizing concerns reported across the state.
“Too many of our students don’t have a certified, full-time teacher in their classrooms. Too many districts don’t have enough bus drivers to get children to and from school,” he told HuffPost. “The real issue is, what can be done to help public schools retain and recruit the teachers and support staff needed to educate our kids?”
One concern that FEA and the state Education Department both cite is the issue of teacher pay, which Ochs called “a very real issue and a challenge that every state is facing ― we accept and acknowledge that.”
Teacher salaries in Florida are among the lowest in the nation, more than $10,000 below the national average, according to the National Education Association’s latest annual ranking, which put Florida 49th during the 2019-2020 school year. A more recent calculation, which included money the state legislature allocated for beginning teachers, boosted the state one notch to 48th place, according to FEA.
Ochs put a more positive spin on that roughly 15% pay increase for new teachers, noting that it moved Florida to 12th place in terms of average starting teacher pay. He also cited a $1,000 Disaster Relief Payment bonus given to teachers in August, and the state’s health benefits and retirement/pension benefits as other successes.
While that starting pay increase has been celebrated for new hires, there’s been criticism that the state has not done enough to reward veteran teachers.
Anna Fusco, president of the teachers union in Broward County, which had 418 instructional job vacancies posted last week, blamed pay disparities for schools’ high job turnover.
“We are getting beat up by the government, parents, students, and management,” Fusco told CBS Miami. “And we make $47,500 [in salary].”