DeSantis targets teachers unions in latest education reform push

The package would weaken the ability of teachers unions to collect dues.
FILE — Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis takes to the stage to debate his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Oct. 24, 2022. (Crystal Vander Weit/TCPalm.com via AP, Pool, File)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) will ask legislators to substantially weaken the ability of teachers unions to collect dues in a new legislative package that would further reform his state’s education system.

In an announcement Monday in Jacksonville, DeSantis, newly inaugurated to his second term in office, laid out what he dubbed the “Teachers Bill of Rights,” a landmark package that would overhaul the way teachers interact with their schools and how voters elect their school board members.

The bill would add another $200 million to raise teacher pay, on top of $800 million already included in this year’s budget, adding to previous salary increases DeSantis has signed into law in the last three years.

“This is a huge package to increase teacher pay, support teacher empowerment and protect teachers’ paychecks by ensuring they have control over their hard-earned salary,” DeSantis said in a statement. “We want more transparency into how school unions operate, and we are going to fight against school union haggling that holds teachers and their salary increases hostage.”

The measure would bar school districts from withholding union dues from an employee paycheck, require unions to notify members of the cost of membership and place limits on the amount union officials can be paid. It would also require employees to submit a form acknowledging that Florida has right-to-work legislation, a law that allows employees to work in a union shop without joining the union, on the books.

Teachers unions are among the most substantial donors to Democratic candidates and causes. State and national teachers unions gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to former Rep. Charlie Crist’s (D) campaign as he challenged DeSantis in the 2022 midterm elections, a race DeSantis won by nearly 20 percentage points.

Teachers “are not going to have, if we do these reforms, automatic deduction for school union dues. That’s your choice, if you want to send money, that’s fine,” DeSantis said Monday. “We want more transparency into how that is done.”

DeSantis, who signed controversial legislation barring teaching critical race theory and topics related to sexual orientation for younger students, would allow teachers to report what they see as violations of state law to the Department of Education.

The legislation also includes a provision creating eight-year term limits for school board members, down from the current 12-year limits. School board members, who now run for office without party labels, would be listed on ballots by their party labels.

DeSantis fought with several local school boards over mask and vaccine mandates in the midst of the pandemic. DeSantis signed legislation barring school districts from imposing those requirements.

Democrats were immediately critical of the proposal. In a tweet, state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) said the move to overhaul school boards would “make public education more partisan.”

“This goes far deeper than just culture wars — this is an educational power grab,” Eskamani wrote.

The pay hike for teachers comes as states across the nation grapple with a shortage of qualified instructors. Last week, the Florida Education Association, the state’s most significant teachers union, reported that Florida schools are trying to fill nearly 5,300 vacant teaching positions, more than three times as many as the state had before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

A starting teacher in Florida now makes an average of $48,000 a year, DeSantis’s office said, up from about $40,000 a year when DeSantis took office in 2019.