TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A new school year, a new education commissioner and several new laws await Florida's 2.9 million public school students.
Many of them returned to class Wednesday after a controversial legislative session where education and parental rights stood front and center.
Not only did lawmakers approve a raft of new policies, but they took steps to address the national teacher shortage. To some, it is the biggest issue in the classroom this year.
According to the Florida Education Association, the state will have 60,000 more students but about 14,000 teachers (8,000) and staff (6,000) vacancies this year.
President of the union, Andrew Spar, considered it among Florida's top problems, and he said it is getting worse.
"Last year, there were approximately 5,000 teacher vacancies at the beginning of the school year," Spar said. "This year, there are 8,000 teacher vacancies.”
For three years Gov. Ron DeSantis has supported boosts to minimum teacher pay as an incentive to recruit and retain more educators. Florida's latest budgeted increase — $250 million — put the state in the top 10 for average starting wages, according to the governor's office.
Lawmakers also unanimously approved a new program fast-tracking military veterans into teaching positions. Candidates must meet minimum teacher certification criteria but don't need a bachelor's degree.
Florida's new commissioner of education, Manny Diaz, recently defended the plan on Fox News. It came after concern teaching quality would suffer.
"It allows our schools to reach out and use this asset in our classroom," Diaz, a former Republican state senator, said. "They come with skills like commitment, dedication, time management, discipline — so, it's a good fit in a lot of places."
Diaz will also be charged with implementing highly-controversial policies sought by Republicans this year. The goal, they said, was to fight "woke-ism" and indoctrination in the classroom.
"We are not going to use your tax dollars to teach our kids to hate this country or hate each other," DeSantis before signing HB 7 into law in April.
HB 7, what DeSantis calls the "Stop WOKE Act," puts new rules on race education in classrooms and workplace training. It prevents teaching things like "white privilege” or inherent racism.
HB 1557, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics, prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms or in a manner "not age-appropriate."
Both laws took effect in July and are now facing legal challenges. Spar believes they're a big part of Florida's hiring troubles.
"When the governor goes around the state vilifying teachers and staff in our schools — and, let's face it, that's what he's doing — he's sending a message to teachers and staff that you don't matter," Spar said. "They are then leaving the profession."
Florida lawmakers and the governor also approved two less controversial education policies this year.
One ends Florida Standards Assessments testing and replaces it with progress monitoring. The other new law bolsters school safety, improving school officer training and requiring districts have emergency reunification plans.