SARASOTA, Fla. – The students in Ms. Stringer’s chemistry class at North Port High School would crack up when Alex Foley, 17, slipped and called his teacher by her first name, Jen.
It was an honest mistake. She wasn’t just his teacher last year – she was also his coworker.
By day Stringer teaches high school chemistry. By night, she waits tables at the British Open Pub in Venice, hustling pints of beer to the snowbirds who pack the pub each night and working alongside kids she explained covalent bonds to hours earlier.
A 10-year teaching veteran in Sarasota County Schools, Stringer is struggling to stretch her $57,423 annual salary to cover the costs of housing, putting two kids through college and her own roughly $15,000 student debt from earning her master’s degree.
Her spare hours are filled with waitressing, tutoring, proctoring practice SAT classes and renting rooms in her house. Colleagues across the state adopt those tactics and more as they seek creative ways to hold onto a profession they love as their paychecks seem ever more inadequate to pay for life in the Sunshine State.
“The love of my life is teaching, but I can’t keep doing it,” she said. “It is ridiculous.”
In the first analysis of its kind, USA TODAY Network reporters examined salaries and housing costs for teachers all over Florida. [Scroll below to learn how we did this project]
Reporters obtained salary data from nearly all 67 Florida school districts and compared median teacher income to median rental costs. In nearly every corner of the state, teachers spend more than a third of their monthly income on housing costs.
Areas were deemed affordable if teachers would have to spend no more than 30% of their salaries – after accounting for federal taxes – to cover the local median rent. That's in line with experts' recommendations for budgeting.
From the Panhandle to the Keys, teachers’ incomes can’t keep up with housing costs.
Based on the USA TODAY analysis not a single county pays starting teachers enough to meet that threshold. The situation barely improves once teachers start moving up the pay scale. Only three districts – Escambia, Leon and Putnam – have a median salary that meets the state’s relatively high cost of living.
Rising housing costs in population centers have made it nearly impossible for teachers to live where they work. The problem is most prevalent in Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys, where teachers must put nearly two-thirds of their take-home pay into housing costs alone. Of 155 rental listings on Zillow, only five are available for $1,333 or less – the amount it would take to make things affordable for a teacher making the district’s median pay.
The low median wages are not explained by an abundance of first-year teachers at the bottom of the pay scale – Florida’s 172,046 teachers have roughly 12 years of teaching experience, on average, according to the state Department of Education.
With a mounting teacher shortage, state leaders have agreed low pay threatens student performance, workforce readiness and Florida's competitiveness in a global economy. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared 2020 the “year of the teacher” in his budget proposal, but as the legislative session winds down, the governor and lawmakers remain split on the best solution.