As students throughout South Florida return to public schools this week, more than 360 teaching positions remain unfilled in Broward and Miami-Dade counties combined. It's part of a teacher shortage that is afflicting school districts across the state.
To address the lack of teachers on staff, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law in June that would permit U.S. military veterans to obtain a five-year temporary teaching certification without a bachelor's degree. On Wednesday, August 17, the Florida Board of Education formally moved to implement the measure
"We are leading by example with innovative teacher recruitment initiatives and in our support of military and veteran families," DeSantis stated in a press release following the board's vote. "We are able to make these important actions because we understand that having great teachers in our classrooms will help us develop great students.”
The state's newly paved Military Veterans Certification Pathway allows veterans with a minimum of 48 months of active service and at least 60 college credits with a 2.5 grade point average to apply to teach in public schools. They also must pass a Florida subject-area exam for a bachelor's degree-level subject.
Under the program, a veteran must earn a bachelor's degree within five years of receiving the temporary certificate in order to obtain a professional teaching certificate.
Despite the prerequisites and a mandate that the veterans be paired with a mentor for their first two years of teaching, some South Florida parents and educators say the program isn't the right solution to the teacher shortage.
Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco
tells New Times
the initiative is "a backwards move." She says the state would have been better off funding further salary increases for teaching positions in order to lure new candidates and incentivize existing staff to stay put. Allowing candidates without full qualifications to "figure out [their] college degree and everything else" while they work with students "is totally demoralizing," the union president says.
Fusco says her father and brothers served in the military and she has deep respect for veterans but believes the program undermines the importance of obtaining proper training and certifications to teach.
"It completely devalues what a teacher needs to do to be credentialed and prepared," Fusco asserts. "It's just like a military person, police officer, or firefighter: You train to be able to get there and be the best you can for the people you serve."
Local parent Amanda Prieto tells New Times
she's reserving judgment. Although she says she's optimistic that the Miami-Dade school district will properly vet the veterans hired under the program, Prieto notes that it's always a concern when the qualifications to teach are lowered.
"I want my children to have the most certified and qualified teachers possible," says Prieto, who created the Miami-Dade Public Schools Parents advocacy group.
"But I do think that schools will make good decisions on what fits for their classrooms."
Another Miami-Dade parent, Lina Sokol, tells New Times
she believes the new pathway fails to consider how difficult it is to control a classroom even when a teacher is a trained professional. She says she's less concerned about subject-matter expertise than she is about the program's potential for rushing teaching candidates into classrooms before they understand how to interact with and nurture students.
As the debate plays out, DeSantis is looking to expand the program. He announced this week that he will work with the legislature to extend eligibility to include police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians.
Florida isn't the only state that's grappling with teacher shortages, nor the only one that's easing teacher qualifications to secure new staff. Arizona
, for instance, is allowing people to teach in public schools while they complete their college degrees. Alabama
is permitting candidates who didn't pass a teacher exam to receive temporary teaching certificates while they undergo more training.
In Florida, the ongoing shortage is in large part due to low pay and the demanding workload for public school teachers — challenges that former Broward County educator Jennifer Reynolds knows all too well.
After working as a teacher in Broward from 1999 to 2009, Reynolds stayed in the education field, running a daycare before joining the nonprofit organization Children's Literacy Initiative. The organization partnered with Broward schools to coach and train kindergarten through third-grade teachers, old and new. It was there that Reynolds noticed how much teachers were struggling.
"Every week, I met with every single teacher and we would plan lessons," Reynolds recounts. "They're asked to do way too much. It's just not realistic. Teachers are in survival mode."
Some gave up teaching entirely because they were just too burnt out. "I know one that left and makes more money bartending," Reynolds says. "What are we doing for our children? It's literally crumbling in front of our eyes."
Meanwhile, earlier this year, DeSantis signed two laws aimed at preventing what he calls "indoctrination" in the state's education system. The Parental Rights in Education measure, otherwise known as the "Don't Say Gay" law, bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The other piece of legislation, the Individual Freedom Plan, AKA the Stop Woke Act, restricts how systemic racism can be taught in public school.
Waldo Mirambeau, an English teacher at McArthur High School in Broward, says the passage of the two controversial laws — and the resulting political firestorm surrounding public education — made an already stress-filled job even less enticing.
"Other jobs, you get fired and you move on to another company. If I get fired in the county, I can't go to another school. If I get written up or anything, it is on my certificate that follows me throughout the state," Mirambeau notes. "With this high liability, I'm afraid to talk about racism or LGBTQ+ when a student asks a question. I don't know how to react."
Reynolds says she's concerned schools will not offer the resources to help veterans become successful teachers under the new temporary certification pathway.
"We can't keep professionals in the classroom, and now we're asking any able-bodied person that has credit hours," she says. "Some of them might be great, but who is going to support them? It's like we're throwing them to the wolves with no direction."
DeSantis and the legislature have allocated more than $2 billion
to raise teacher pay since the 2020 legislative session. But Florida public school teachers remain among the lowest paid
in the nation on average. While Florida ranks 16th out of 50 states in terms of starting teacher salary, it drops to 48th when ranked for average salary across experience levels, according to a 2022 report by the National Education Association.
Reynolds was recently looking for a new job and considered returning to teaching until she found out that despite her years of experience, her public school teaching salary would be reset at a starting level of $4,750 a month.
"I found that really interesting," she tells New Times
. "You're gonna hire a veteran that has absolutely no experience but 60 credit hours, and I'm going to be paid the same amount. I just thought, 'Why would anybody do that?' I mean, Pollo Tropical is hiring a manager for $65,000."