Andrew Spar, Florida Education Association President, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the worker shortage in Florida public schools.
- We've been talking a lot today about the jobs report, and one of the pieces of the report that's getting a lot of attention is that public education jobs fell by about 65,000. So we want to have this discussion about, how do we get people into the schools, and to do that we've invited into the stream Andrew Spar who is the Florida Education Association president. It's good to have you here. What's the biggest obstacle, especially in Florida, to filling the vacancies do you think?
ANDREW SPAR: Yeah, we are seeing stuff in Florida that we haven't ever seen before. We started this year with almost 5,000 vacancies among our teachers, and about 4,000 vacancies among our education staff professionals. And usually when we're two or three months into the school year, those numbers, those vacancies drop. But this year, we actually saw an increase. We now have about 5,100 vacancies among teachers, and about 4,300 vacancies among our education support professionals.
And so, there's obviously something going on here. And what we're seeing is just-- people who work in our public schools have seen a lot of the controversy at school board meetings. They've been maligned by some in the media, and certainly some specific groups that may have ulterior motives. And it's an extremely stressful time for everyone right now, especially those who work in our public schools. And unfortunately, that's leading to a mass exodus from our public schools right now.
- So Andrew, what can we do to address this? What needs to be done in order to fill those thousands of vacancies that your state is currently facing?
ANDREW SPAR: Well, I think we have to realize that this is a bipartisan issue, right? There's a lot of political rancor going on. But really right now, what we need to do, is we all need to come together. This is going to take parents. This is going to take the business community, community members at large, and it's going to take lawmakers, all working together with our public schools, with our educators to change what's happening to the image of public education.
We see, at our colleges and universities, we see fewer kids going on to become teachers. In fact, the University of South Florida last year, which is the largest University for producing future teachers, they actually talked about closing down their College of Education because student enrollment was so low. So what we have to do, is we have to pay teachers and staff more. We have to give them the respect and control of what the decisions need to happen in the classrooms. We all need to work together as partners, and not try to pit parents versus teachers. And we need to change the tone and the tenor of what's happening in public school board meetings across this nation right now.
- Attracting people sometimes is also about the dollars and cents. Curious, what's the average salary for say, you know the first couple of years, a teacher in Florida, and how does that compare to other states?
ANDREW SPAR: Now Florida teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. They are 48th in the nation out of our 50 states. And there was a huge investment a couple of years ago by lawmakers in Florida, but that investment went to beginning teacher pay. So while beginning teacher pay has improved in the state of Florida, teachers who have been in the profession for 10 years, 15 years 25 years, 30 years, are actually making less in real dollars than their counterparts did 10 years ago.
So again, you may have an attractive starting salary in Florida, which is moving up.
- What is it?
ANDREW SPAR: It's about 47,500, but it's not sustainable for teachers to stay in the profession.
- So Andrew, it sounds like this has been a problem now for quite some time. And the COVID pandemic has just exacerbated that issue. But as you do discuss this, as we do see the number of teachers continuing to drop, that 65,000 number that we got out this morning, the decline that we saw within the public education system, are you hopeful that the conversation is starting to turn? Are you seeing any signs that maybe we could be in a different place than we are right now a year or two from today?
ANDREW SPAR: I am hopeful. But I think, again, it's going to take all of us working together. We need people who care about kids. And there are a lot of people who care about kids. To come into our public schools to work as teachers, as bus drivers, as cafeteria workers or custodians, as the teacher assistants in the classrooms. We need people coming into our public schools to make sure that our students get the education they deserve, regardless of race, background, zip code, or exceptionality.
But for that to happen, we have to put aside political differences. We have to recognize the needs of our public schools, which is making sure we have adequate funding to pay people fairly, to provide good benefits. And we need to empower the people who work in our schools to do the jobs we hire them to do. They have to be the trusted professionals that they are trained to be. And too often, policy gets in the way of having that. And it frustrates people to no end. And then they leave the profession.
When kids aren't choosing teaching as an option and a viable career choice, we have to take a hard look at what we're doing. And it's going to take everyone working together to make it happen.
- Can you point to any particular school district or state that is doing what you've just said, and doing it well?
ANDREW SPAR: Well, I think there are other states in the nation that go really hard to make sure that they have teachers in the profession. I think you've seen states such as New York or Massachusetts, where they have really been looking at ways to make sure that they keep teachers in the profession. But again, there is a national trend right now, when you hear the political dialogue going on in Washington, D.C. We saw it in the Virginia governor's race, that kind of maligns teachers and tries to pit parents versus teacher.
That's not how this works. We have to be partners in this work. And if we truly want to make sure we have the best public schools-- and I will point out, that when you ask other countries, they look to the United States for how well we do at teaching entrepreneurship and ingenuity, and how we lead the world in creative thinking. We have great public schools. We need to remember that. We need to celebrate that. And we need to lift up the people who work in our public schools.
- We appreciate your joining us to talk about the job vacancies in public education. Andrew Spar, who is, by the way, the president of the Florida Education Association.