When Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in 2019, there were almost 3,300 teacher vacancies in Florida public schools, and he promised to resolve the shortage.
On his campaign website, DeSantis promised to "help recruit the best teachers," and work with the Legislature to "expand programs that incentivize top educators to teach in Florida." He also pledged to develop programs that incentivize and reward teachers in more demanding or specialized positions, such as teaching special needs students.
DeSantis focused largely on raising teachers' salaries. When he took office, the average starting teacher salary for Florida's teachers was $37,932, according to David Struhs, senior legislative director for the Foundation for Florida's Future, an education advocacy nonprofit founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. By contrast, the average starting teacher salary in the nation was $40,154 for the 2018-19 school year, according to the National Education Association.
While in office, DeSantis successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature to provide funding to raise the minimum starting teachers salary to $47,500, raise pay for veteran teachers, and proposed a $300 million bonus program for teachers and principals.
In August 2022, DeSantis announced a new state rule to speed military veterans' path to becoming teachers by offering them temporary teaching certificates without having to earn bachelor's degrees. (These are the same initiatives the Governor's Office pointed to when asked by PolitiFact about this promise.)
DeSantis also implemented a grant program that provided up to $15,000 to teachers and administrators at low-performing schools and secured $1,000 in disaster relief payments for almost 177,000 Florida educators for the pandemic, per the state Department of Education. The latter functioned mostly as bonuses for teachers working to educate students in person during the pandemic.
But raising the minimum starting salary has created tensions with veteran teachers who find themselves earning little more than a new hire, said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's primary teachers union. Education Department data from February 2022 shows that about 14% of state public school teachers are in their first year of teaching while 42% have 11 years of experience or more. Only 17% have been teaching for 21 years or more.
"We literally have some districts where teachers in their first year are making as much as teachers in their 20th year of teaching in a district," Spar said.
DeSantis' office counters this, saying more than 76,000 veteran teachers received higher pay in the 2021-22 school year.
It's unclear whether DeSantis' policies have helped or harmed teacher shortages, which are a problem in many parts of the country. Several other factors have complicated teacher retention in Florida, including the difficulties of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic and the state's rising cost of living.
In August 2016, according to data from the Florida Education Association, there were 2,403 open teaching positions advertised statewide. By contrast, in January 2019, just as DeSantis' gubernatorial term started, the state tallied almost 3,300 teacher vacancies.
Teacher vacancies hovered around 3,200 in 2019-20 and almost 3,700 in 2020-21, Florida Education Department data shows. But by 2021-22, vacancies surged to almost 4,500, the department reported. Vacancies in exceptional student education, which includes a variety of special needs disciplines, rose from 866 in the 2018-19 school year to 1,321 in the 2021-22 year, state data shows.
DeSantis' rhetoric has also complicated teacher attraction and retention, said Billy Townsend, a former Polk County School Board Member who writes a newsletter on Florida, education and politics. The governor has made teachers a frequent target, at least according to the head of a national teachers' union. At a recent press conference, the governor claimed there was "woke indoctrination in our schools."
Also, in 2022, DeSantis signed the "Stop WOKE Act," which although vaguely worded, essentially banned teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation in elementary school classrooms, though potentially older grades, too. Gender equality activists dubbed the measure the "don't say gay" bill.
"I don't know how making teachers your number one political foil is helping to reduce the teacher shortage in Florida," Townsend said. "I don't think that promise has worked out very well."
It's still hard to say quantitatively how much any of this would have affected teacher retention. Struhs points to state data that shows over the last four school years, Florida's instructional staff has increased by more than 2,300 full-time members.
Data from the state's Education Department shows teacher vacancies were up to 5,208, as of the first day of school in the 2022-23 school year. By Sept. 1, that number dropped to 4,442, around the same as the 2021-22 number but still an increase from when DeSantis took office.
Given that number, the vacancy rate per full-time instructional personnel in Florida public schools is at about 2.4%, a state Education Department spokesperson said. The national opening rate for educational services in August 2022 was 4.1%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It's clear DeSantis worked to deliver on his promise to reduce teacher shortages. But the pandemic made education at the end of his gubernatorial term much more complicated. State data shows there are more teacher vacancies now, at the end of DeSantis' term, than there were when it started.
DeSantis promised to reduce teacher shortages and address the problem, but the numbers show they have only increased. We rate this promise Stalled.