• Florida has 5,294 teacher vacancies, the state education association says, compared with 2,217 vacancies in January 2019 when Gov. Ron DeSantis took office.
  • Teachers say they are leaving because of low pay and DeSantis’ education policies, dubbed the “war on woke.”
  • DeSantis’ office says that education in the state is thriving and that pay for teachers has increased, criticizing what it describes as “hysteria” promoted by school unions.

It’s a profession she loves. It’s also a profession that Jodi Turchin thinks about leaving behind.

A 12th grade English teacher in Florida’s Broward County, the 52-year-old is among those who are finding it more and more difficult to continue in their jobs.

Turchin cites “out of control” bureaucracy and standardized testing as one reason why she has considering quitting teaching after 19 years. Others she knows have already left.

“We are ‘encouraged’ to teach to the tests and if an administrator observes a lesson that is on a subject not on the state test, it can impact that teacher’s performance review,” she told Newsweek. “Once upon a time, it was okay to take a tangent for a teachable moment. It no longer is.”

But the main reason for her frustration, as for many teachers, is simple: pay.

“I’m a single woman, self-supporting, and the yearly ‘salary increases’ in my district never keep up with cost of living increases,” Turchin said. “It makes it nearly impossible to save, and it’s only because I live simply that I don’t have to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.”

As inflation remains stubbornly high, it’s a problem faced by many government employees across the country. But it’s a problem that is particularly acute in Florida.

Florida Combats Colossal Teacher Shortage
Teachers speak in a classroom at Lyman High School in Longwood on the day before classes begin for the 2021-22 school year.
Paul Hennessy/Getty

According to the National Education Association, Florida ranked 48th in the nation for teacher salaries in the 2020-2021 school year, giving them an average of $51,009. The national average that year was $65,293.

The NEA estimates Florida will continue to rank 48th for the 2021-2022 school year. It was ranked 47th when Gov. Ron DeSantis took office.

In an effort to attract teachers, DeSantis announced pay raises for teachers in March last year, raising the average starting salary for a teacher in Florida to at least $47,000. In a statement at the time, he said it would help the state “recruit and retain great teachers.”

But almost a year on, Florida’s teacher shortage has worsened.

The ‘Worst’ Shortage Florida Has Ever Seen

There were 5,294 teacher vacancies in Florida in January 2023, according to the Florida Education Association’s (FEA) last count of teaching and staff positions advertised on district websites. Furthermore, the number of support staff vacancies was 4,631.

The number of teacher vacancies was up from 4,359 in January 2022 and is far higher than the 2,217 vacancies in January 2019, when DeSantis took office.

Andrew Spar, the president of the FEA, said the number of teacher vacancies has likely increased since January.

“This is the worst teacher and staff shortage we’ve ever seen in the state of Florida,” he told Newsweek.

“We believe based on what we’re hearing, that number is going up,” he said, noting that his 14-year-old daughter’s teacher had left her job just two weeks ago.

“They can’t find a teacher to replace her at this point in the year, and they’re probably not even going to try,” he said.

His daughter was without a science teacher for half of last year as well. “So this is something that’s happening and impacting our students, our kids, every day,” Spar said. “When you talk about over 5,000 vacancies, you’re literally talking about hundreds of thousands of students that are not being taught by a certified teacher in their classroom.”

Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ press secretary, disputed this narrative, which he described as “divisive.”

“Florida has 185,000 teachers and the state’s vacancies represented (in September—and hiring has continued) approximately 2.4 percent of teaching positions, around 1.2 open positions per school on average. This does not reflect a ‘struggle to hire and retain teachers’,” he said.

“The bottom line is that the school unions are guilty here, as always, of trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in an attempt to manufacture hysteria and get teachers to leave the profession so that they can validate their own narrative. It’s divisive and it’s wrong.”

Why Is There a Shortage?

Indeed, several states have grappled with a shortage of teachers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, hundreds of teachers in Los Angeles staged a three-day walkout over better wages and staffing levels.

But Florida, where DeSantis has been cultivating a national spotlight by taking on culture war issues, including in schools, led the nation in terms of teacher vacancies in the 2021–2022 school year, a report by researchers at Kansas State University’s College of Education found.

Ron DeSantis, Bayview Elementary School
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a press conference held at Bayview Elementary School on October 7, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has said he is increasing teachers’ pay.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

According to Spar, vacancies have risen in recent years both because not enough people in Florida are choosing to become teachers and growing numbers of teachers are leaving the profession before retirement age. He said that the University of South Florida in 2020 announced plans to eliminate its College of Education, before ultimately reversing course, noting that enrollment was down.

“To us, it comes down to one thing, and that’s respect,” he said. “Respect is shown in a couple of ways. One of them is certainly pay.”

He said that while Florida’s minimum base salary is now $47,500, the average salary for all teachers is hovering around $51,000.

“Basically, you don’t go very far once you get into the teaching profession,” he said. “It’s what we call the teacher experience penalty, meaning the more you teach, the longer you teach, the smaller your pay increases are going to be.”

Turchin said the minimum starting teacher salary when she was hired in 2004 was $35,000. This year, her base pay is $54,250. “So with 18+ years of experience, I only make $6,750 more a year than an inexperienced brand new teacher in Florida,” she said.

Experienced teachers “are not making what they thought they would be making at this point in their career,” Spar said. “And they’re walking away from the teaching profession, because they can’t afford to be teachers anymore.”

DeSantis’ much-touted pay raise focused on starting teacher salaries and “left veterans behind,” said Chris Fulton, an English teacher at Tarpon Springs High School, who has been teaching for 25 years.

It’s a “slap in the face,” Fulton, 65, added. “You’ve got teachers who’ve been teaching 25 years, who are making maybe $10,000 a year more tops than somebody who’s just walking in off the street.”

Brandt Robinson, a history teacher at Dunedin High School, from where DeSantis graduated, agreed.

“What a lot of teachers realize is when you adjust for inflation, and you adjust for the cost of living increase, we’re not making any more than we made when I began my career back in 1998,” Robinson, 54, told Newsweek.

Spar said DeSantis “wanted to pit teachers against teachers, saying that beginning teachers should get pay raises, but not experienced teachers and hence, experienced teachers start walking away.

“He has had this notion of division since he’s been governor and he’s been using public schools as a way to create more and more division.”

Griffin said that since 2020, DeSantis has secured more than $2 billion in funding for teacher pay and that it allowed Florida to achieve an average starting teacher salary of $48,000 for the 2022-2023 school year, exceeding the goal of $47,500.

“The governor is proposing an additional $200 million to continue raising teacher pay, bringing the total to $1 billion for teacher pay in his recommended budget for the next year,” he said.

That funding “will provide school districts with maximum flexibility to fit the school district’s needs best. School districts can apply the funding to continue raising starting teacher salaries or to provide salary increases for veteran teachers and other eligible instructional personnel. No eligible full-time classroom teacher will receive a base salary less than the minimum base salary established during the 2022-2023 school year.”

But, as the Miami Herald’s editorial board argued earlier this year, DeSantis also wants to “essentially kill teachers’ unions” by requiring they represent at least 60 percent of eligible employees. The bill ends paycheck deductions for specific public-sector union dues and increases to 60 percent required employee membership, decertifying a union that can’t meet that threshold.

The ‘Vilification’ of Teachers

Pay isn’t the only factor driving the exodus of Florida teachers. Another, they say, is DeSantis’ “war on woke.”

The governor, who is gearing up for a likely presidential bid, signed legislation—which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—last year that bans the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in certain grade levels. His administration is now moving to expand the law to all grades.

Protesters Gather at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Protesters rally at the entrance to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in opposition to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was scheduled to speak there on March 5, 2023, in Simi Valley, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

DeSantis also signed into law a bill that bans the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 classrooms, despite it not being part of the state’s public school curriculum. Earlier this year, the DeSantis administration blocked a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in high schools, saying it violates state law.

Griffin said that Florida’s education system is thriving under DeSantis and policies such as these. “Parents now have unprecedented involvement in their children’s education. Porn is being removed from school libraries, and anti-factual, divisive curriculum is prohibited from use in instruction,” he said.

The governor’s supporters say his policies restrict indoctrination and prevent students from accessing inappropriate material. Teachers say it has prompted a vilification of their profession and driven many to leave their jobs.

Robinson said he was accused by a parent of seeking to indoctrinate students with Marxist ideology in his African American history course. “Why would you go into a profession if you’re reading about states where teachers are being accused of things that are just simply not happening?” Robinson said.

“I mean, there’s no indoctrination of students, there’s no grooming of students. I just want my students to be able to put their phones away and take out their materials. The things that are happening here in Florida are just grossly offensive, and frankly, at times terrifying.”

Teachers “don’t want to be in a profession in a state where they’re constantly being criticized on falsehoods, so that the governor can further his political ambition,” Spar said.

Turchin said the governor’s actions focused on “dismantling public education” and were certainly contributing to the teacher shortage.

“It seems like every other bill coming out of the legislature lately seeks to punish teachers and librarians for doing what we do best, teaching children,” she said.

“If I have to hear that I ‘indoctrinate’ or ‘groom’ my students one more day I might lose my mind. Teaching used to be fun. Now with so much state oversight, it’s becoming a chore and not worth the money we are paid.”

Another law that took effect in July last year requires all books and materials in schools to be reviewed by a district employee holding a valid educational media specialist certificate to ensure they are age-appropriate, free of pornography and “suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented.”

Brian Covey, a substitute teacher, was fired after his viral videos of empty bookshelves were denounced as misinformation by DeSantis.

Covey told Newsweek that many teachers are “conditioned to grin and bear it” and are afraid of doing anything that could risk them losing their teaching certificate.

“Losing your teaching certificate is leaving you with your education debt, no career and no pension,” he said.

Fulton says that teachers want a certain amount of autonomy and not “helicopter parenting” by the state.

“As an English teacher, if you’re going to try to tell me what books I can or can’t teach, I’m going to have a real problem with that,” Fulton said.

“There’s too much pressure being placed upon teachers instead of just letting them teach. So combine that with the low salaries, and teacher morale is, it’s in the gutter in the state of Florida. You have teachers who have been teaching as long as I have that look at the way it was, and the way it is, and the only reason they’re hanging in there is because they don’t have an alternative.”

Fulton is planning to retire at the end of next year.

“If I was looking at it another 10 years down the road, yeah, I wouldn’t stay in the profession,” he said.

“It’s all about the kids for the teachers, but it’s all the ancillary stuff that we have to worry about, be it parents, be it district policies, be it state mandates that take away the joy out of out of teaching…I wouldn’t suggest to anybody at this point in time to get into teaching.”

Robinson is still a few years away from being able to participate in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) program, which lawmakers have proposed expanding due to the state’s teacher shortage. But at that point, he will be 58. “The fact is, I’m still gonna have to teach for a while after I get my 30 years, just so I can afford to make sure I have health insurance,” he said.

Similarly, Turchin said: “I stay mostly because even with my salary as low as it is, at my age it would be difficult to obtain a job outside of education paying an equitable starting salary.”

How Can Florida Solve the Shortage?

The FEA has produced a list of short and long-term solutions to solve the state’s shortage of teachers and staff. It includes calls to increase funding for public schools, repeal the more than 20 laws that have govern teacher pay and allow teachers to earn long-term contracts.

“We’ve called on the legislature to invest $2.5 billion a year for the next seven years, which if done would move Florida from the basement in funding for our schools to the top 10 in the nation,” Spar said. “But it would also give additional resources to districts where we could negotiate pay raises.”

Florida Sen. Lori Berman and State Rep. Jervonte “Tae” Edmonds, both Democrats, filed bills earlier this year that seek to raise starting teacher salaries to $65,000, which would put Florida’s teachers on par with the national average.

“The rising costs of living, from housing to food, has only exacerbated the issue of teacher underpayment,” they said, and a pay raise “would help recruit and retain teachers, especially since there is a major shortage plaguing our schools.”

Fulton argues that Florida would attract “quality” teachers if they were paid $100,000 across the board, guaranteed a 3 percent annual pay increase and benefits.

But the “easiest” thing that can be done to combat the shortage, Spar said, is for DeSantis and others to tone down their rhetoric and stop what their critics characterize as the demonization of teachers.

“They can stop vilifying and criticizing and lying about teachers who work in our schools,” he said. “And if they did that, I think the tone would change and the tone changing would make it easier for people to to be able to do their job.”

Spar added: “If we don’t have teachers and staff in our schools, kids aren’t getting the education they deserve.

“Every year we fail to address the massive teacher and staff shortage means that another year that the state of Florida is shortchanging children, and the future of our state.”