Miami’s Teachers Don’t Just Deserve Higher Pay – They Need It

When you go vote, make sure you remember all the teachers who worked to get you where you are today.
When you go vote, make sure you remember all the teachers who worked to get you where you are today. Photo by dolgachov /
Teachers are the architects and engineers of our society. They spend their days shaping impressionable children into adolescents, then into teenagers, and finally into men and women. Their work isn’t simply a matter of facts and figures; it’s about stoking curiosity and imparting inspiration. They help students fulfill their potential.

Teaching is undeniably one of the most important jobs a person can choose — and one of the hardest. A good teacher needs deep wells of creativity and charisma to engage students, as well as vast reserves of energy and patience. And despite all the work they put into their classrooms, most teachers in America are paid a pittance.

For many Miami-Dade County Public School (MDCPS) teachers, this reality makes the work unsustainable. But come November, that could change if voters pass a referendum that would raise $232 million per year for county schools through a .75-mill increase in property taxes over the next four years.

Of course, that will only happen if you come out to support the very last item on the ballot.

Eighty-eight percent of the money would go to raises for teachers and other instructional personnel, with the other 12 percent going to fund security for schools. That 88 percent shakes out to just over $200 million a year.  While it's not completely clear yet how that would be distributed, superintendent Alberto Carvalho has discussed raising some teacher salaries as much as 20 percent. (Broward passed a $93 million measure to give its teachers a raise in August.)

Here are a few facts and figures that give some context of what’s at stake. Miami-Dade is the fifth largest public school district in the country, surpassed only by New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Puerto Rico. The starting base salary for Miami-Dade County teachers: $41,000. The starting base salary in New York City: $56,711. That's almost $5,000 more than the average Miami-Dade teacher with 12 years' experience brings home.

And if you think teaching is by definition a low-paying gig, note that Massachusetts — which USA Today and Education Week ranked as having the best school system in the country — pays teachers an average salary of about $78,000. Some counties in that state pay over $100,000.

Carlos Rodriguez has worked as a teacher in Miami-Dade schools for 35 years. For the past 18, he has taught at Miami Beach Senior High. For Rodriguez, C-Rod to many of his chemistry students, the referendum is necessary.

"Unfortunately, the high cost of living in the Dade County area has affected the ability to recruit teachers," Rodriguez says. “The only way that we’re going to be able to compete with other areas and... attract quality teachers is to pay them a salary where they can live here.”

A 2018 GoBankingRates report recently concluded that anyone hoping to live comfortably in Miami has to earn at least $85,000 per year. That’s about $35 grand more than the average teacher in Miami earns before taxes, which makes the idea of settling down here problematic at best.

"I can see that finding teachers to replace those that are retiring is getting more difficult, and having teachers that stay for as long as I have is going to become less possible because as soon as that teacher starts wanting a family, living here they can’t do it,” Rodriguez says. "So they end up moving away even if they wanted to stay being a teacher.”

And while schools like Beach High may be able to hang onto veteran teachers like Rodriguez who have reached the top of the pay scale, it’s difficult to convince newer teachers to stay and replace the old guard with current teacher salaries.

“If they’re good, those teachers are gonna have options. And they will leave,” Rodriguez says. “There are some that have already left the county, some that have already left to private schools, and those are usually our better teachers.”

One teacher who left is Paul Rehage, who taught at Beach High until recently. After 14 years with MDCPS, he took a leave of absence, then began work at Xceed Preparatory Academy, a private school that focuses on models of learning tailored to the students.

“There are some really good programs in Miami-Dade Public Schools, and it’s the talent pool of teachers behind them that make them so good, that facilitate the design of the programs and implement them," says Rehage. "In order to attract and maintain [teachers], something absolutely needs to be done to help increase their salaries.”

It’s easy to see the benefit of such programs and teachers. In 1999, MDCPS started implementing a grading system based on multiple factors, from graduation rates to standardized test results. That first year the county saw 26 F schools. Fast forward to 2015: 16 such schools. In 2016, that number dropped to seven. Last year marked the first time the county had zero F-grade schools. And in 2018, the MDCPS received its first district-wide A-average.

Even with all this progress, many teachers around the county need a second or even a third job to scrape by. They have to work side hustles as tutors, salespeople, bar backs, and reporters. And that, according to Rehage, is a serious issue.

“If you want really good teachers, the biggest thing is you can’t have teachers working two jobs because they’re not able to do what they really need to do day in and day out to be an effective teacher,” he explains. “If you really want to focus on what a good teacher does, you need to make sure that they can do their job — do their one job — so they’re not dividing their time and energy between their teaching job and another job because when you get to school the next day..., your attention isn’t on what it should be.”

As Rehage sees it, the referendum isn’t just about improving teachers' lives and the school system as a whole — it’s also a survey of how the community values education.

“I like to think people are going to vote to increase teacher pay because it should improve society across the board — smarter people make this a better place,” Rehage says. “People need to see a correlation between high-quality education and improving society."

The severity of the situation is perhaps most glaring viewed through a new teacher's eyes. Cassie Torrence moved to Miami from Cleveland just over six months ago as part of Teach for America, the Americorps program that helps provide teachers in areas with low retention rates. She teaches ninth- and tenth-grade reading at Miami Central High School, where last week she had 30 students added to her schedule because another teacher decided to walk out in the middle of the day.

“I would love to see teachers stay somewhere like Miami Central longer because these kids see new teachers every year. There’s no consistency,” says Torrence. “I mean, there are nine new teachers that were just hired this year. Last year there were eight new teachers. Only two of them are left. When these kids are not able to build relationships with you through their whole school trajectory – maybe you were that teacher that they came to for things and you’re gone by their junior year – what are they gonna do?”

For Torrence, who is currently pursuing her masters in education and social change at the University of Miami while working full-time at Miami Central, the problem isn’t a shortage of good teachers — it’s supporting potential.

“I have so many friends that would be fantastic teachers, excellent educators,” Torrence says. “They won’t do it because they’re already $200,000 in debt from undergrad and grad school. How is $41,000 a year going to pay not only for how you live but for the debt you owe to your private or public university?”

Education cannot be an afterthought. And without teachers, the whole show comes crashing down. No matter how much Steve Jobs or Truman Capote might have maligned their schooling, somebody taught them to add and subtract and read and write. And without that somebody, the world would be a different place. It’s high time, in Torrence’s eyes, that we start giving teachers fair credit and paying them their due.

“I would love to make it a rock-star career,” she exclaims. “It’s a thankless job. It’s a noble job... but I’m not held in high regard by anyone when I tell them I’m a public school teacher. I think that the narrative has to change. Passing this would help to build upon the idea that teaching and education are fundamental to how we move forward.”
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Travis Cohen is a writer for Miami New Times and covers subjects ranging from arts and architecture to marijuana and monkeys with herpes. He graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor's degree in English in 2012 and began working with New Times shortly thereafter. He was born and raised in Miami.