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Florida Capitol girds for rally, debate over teacher raises

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s capital city prepared for one of its largest demonstrations in recent years, as thousands of school workers arrived from across the state Monday to press Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.

Rally organizers said as many as 10,000 demonstrators would descend on the Capitol on the eve of the official start of the 2020 legislative session. Tallahassee police planned to close off the main thoroughfare in front of the Capitol.

The popular Republican governor has made the raises a centerpiece in his $91.4 billion budget plan that also includes significant spending on environmental programs. His agenda may wrest control of key political issues — education and climate change — long championed by Democrats.

Florida’s protest comes amid a wave of education activism across the country over the past two years, including in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

On education, DeSantis is asking lawmakers to approve $600 million to boost the minimum salary of public school teachers to $47,500, which would catapult starting salaries to among the highest in the country. Another $300 million would be distributed based on merit.

But the state’s largest school union says the governor’s proposal merely gives the illusion that he is addressing problems that have long plagued public schools, such as understaffing, crumbling facilities and low morale. The union said as many as 2,400 teaching jobs remain unfilled.

“I want to at least thank the governor for trying to understand that there is a problem” said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the 145,000-member Florida Education Association. “The unfortunate piece is that he has not taken the time to listen to practitioners, the people who are actually on the ground doing the work.”

Ingram said the governor’s $1 billion proposal is far short of what is needed to restore funding for traditional public schools that was siphoned off in recent decades by voucher programs, charter schools and other budget cuts.

The union is calling on the governor to increase his legislative request to $2.4 billion for the current legislative session and similar amounts annually for the rest of the decade.

The money would be used to fund 10% raises across the board — not only for teachers but also for other school employees.

Union officials said 17 busloads were en route to Tallahassee for Miami. In Polk County, some 1,600 teachers requested time off to the attend the rally, prompting state school officials to send out an email reminding educators that a concerted walkout could constitute an illegal strike.

DeSantis was in Jacksonville on Monday morning to announce a college funding program, returning to the capital in the afternoon.

A legislative committee is expected to begin taking up the governor’s school funding proposal in the afternoon. The $1 billion funding request already has drawn scrutiny from fiscally conservative members within his own party.

When the governor unveiled his proposed budget last fall, he declared it the “year of the teacher.”

The governor is strongly supporting Florida’s teachers, especially younger ones that face the greatest challenges in the classroom, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said. “To suggest otherwise is an unfortunate disconnect with reality.”

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