Teachers and Public Education are Under Attack in Florida

By Pablo- Miami Autonomy & Solidarity (MAS)

Education reform seems to be the buzzword coming out of all the politicians’ mouths these days, and these words have taken on a menacing form in the case of Florida.  In Florida, education reform is supposedly at the bottom of legislation such as HB7189 and SB 6.  These companion bills, emerging from the Florida House of Representative and the Senate respectively, claim to have education reform in mind, but are little more than thinly veiled attacks on the teaching profession, and in particularly its unions.  While I think there is much to be desired from our public education system, make no mistake about it these bills simply don’t address any of the fundamental problems plaguing our current system.  Instead, these bills’ authors and supporters seek to advance an “education reform” agenda which emphasis market-driven solutions to complex social problems, as well as furthering the privatization of the public sector.  In addition, these bills seek to undermine teachers’ unions, and further strip teacher, as well as local school districts, of any autonomy.

For many years now, so-called education reformers have advocated simplistic market-driven formulas to improve education. Much of their solutions have come in the form of charter schools and differential pay for teachers, as well as other competition-based schemes.  Examples like Belgium or Sweden, where the parents are given an x amount of money, or voucher, and where the schools must compete with each other in order to attract these walking bundles of cash are often cited as welcomed solutions to our educational woes in America.  These are said to be classic example of the market working in perfect order, where consumers vote with their feet, and schools either keep their consumers happy or fail and go out of business.

Unfortunately, a thorough exploration of different educational systems using some sort of voucher program is beyond the scope of this article. Yet, I will say this much, that briefly looking at the Belgian and Swedish systems it’s obvious that their academic success cannot be attributed primarily to the fact that competition exist in their education system. They have school on Saturdays, have more courses in the school year, and students are administered tests in 8th grade and 10th grade to see if they should remain on an academic track or switch to a vocational one; it’s an entirely different system than the one we have here.  Furthermore, both systems have strong teacher unions that can negotiate national contracts for their profession; unions of course are often cited by many “education reformers” as being one of the major obstacles to a better education system here. So, it becomes clear, even from a cursory analysis, that there exist great differences between our education system and theirs.  Competition and choice are merely part of the equation, and by no means can account for the entirety or even a significant portion of that systems academic success.

Looking at HB7189 and SB 6 specifically, we find much evidence for the claim that these bills are largely an attack on the teaching profession and on teachers’ unions.  These bills intend to introduce much desired employee “flexibility” into a profession that has for a long time resisted such incursions.  Both bills want to do away with “tenure” or the “professional service contracts usually granted to teachers after 3 years of service, and instead put new teachers on a 5 year probationary period, after which they may be awarded single-year contracts.[1] Even if one wants to argue that tenure should not be giving automatically after a certain number of years of service, it’s clear that the one year contracts intend to do away with any sense of job security, making it easier for administrators to get rid of teachers with or without good reason.

Proponents of this bill argue that tenure breeds incompetence by guaranteeing teachers their jobs, regardless of performance, since it makes it more difficult and/or costlier to fire them.  While this may be true of some teachers with tenure, it’s quite cynical to paint the entire profession with such broad strokes, assuming that all or most teachers are working hard up until the point that they receive tenure, after which they merely cruise by until retirement.  Yet, tenure for teachers means that one cannot be fired for non-teaching related issues like personal politics, personality clashes, and nepotism.  It also affords teachers due process under the law, putting the burden of proof on admto demonstrate that one is being fired for being ineffective as a teacher lies entirely with administrators.  While there may not be an abundance of evidence linking tenure to an improved learning environment, anecdotally, a teacher with financial piece of mind has to be more conducive to a better learning environment than one that is constantly stressed out by monetary concerns spurned on by lack of job security.  Lastly, to answer the remarks of those claiming that since they lack these protections in their jobs everyone else should too, I would suggest that they organize themselves like teachers did in order to win such safeguards instead of merely spiting those that have them.

Another devastating provision afforded by these bills is the ability to tie fifty percent of a teacher’s income to how well their students score on standardized tests like the FCAT.[2] If many educators already feel like the FCAT forces them to teach to the test, how much worse will this be when half of their pay is tied to how well their students do on this one exam!   Though the bill intends to eventually replace the FCAT with end-of-the-course examinations in every subject area, the premise remains the same.  Teachers will be force to further shift away from teaching greatly needed critical thinking skills, and developing higher thought processes in order to teach “beat-the-test” tricks to ensure their students pass the exams.  This measure will also exacerbate inequalities within our de facto two-tier education system.  A recent study by University of Florida researchers concluded that there is a strong relationship between where students live, family income, and how well they do on standardized tests.[3] They found that students that are more affluent tend to do better on standardized tests like the FCAT. One more factor to keep in mind is that the cost of creating and administering expensive test like the FCAT will only be augmented by the massive size of this new plan for end-of-the-course test in every subject area, and it’s the hard-working people of Florida that will likely be footing the bill.

In addition, these bills intend to do away with higher compensation for years of experience and holding advanced degrees.[4] While perhaps one could argue that there is no conclusive evidence showing that holding an advance degree necessarily produces greater results in the classroom, the evidence is much more definitive when it comes to experience.  As with anything, you’re going to make many mistakes when you first start out, especially in a profession where often times you’re simply given the set of keys to your classroom and told to teach.  Lack of funding usually means not affording us such luxuries as mentors; as such, we are force to seek advice and guidance wherever and whenever we can get it.  So it’s preposterous to suggest that experience should not count in determining compensation for work.  Regarding compensation for higher degrees and National Board Certification, there is a serious disconnect between what we as a society promote and what this bill is communicating. On the one hand we’re constantly encouraging students to further their education (even if it means getting into massive debt) because of the financial opportunities it provides them, yet on the other, we’re telling teachers that we’ll no longer reward them for their hard work and effort in seeking such degrees.  This is clearly an example of the schizophrenic logic that abounds in these bills.

Tenure, advance degrees, and the like are all supposed to afford you a certain sense of job security, something everyone wants in a system where unemployment is accompanied by stiff penalties, hardships, and an endangerment to your well-being.  Yet, certain education reformers and free-market advocates want us to believe that job security in the teaching profession amounts to little more than over-compensated lethargy.  Their rational, whether stated explicitly or implied, is that it’s these “pampered” teachers with their greedy unions that are putting their personal well-being before your child’s education.  At the same time, they want to sell these reforms to us as a way for us to make more money, to be compensated at market value.

Yet, it’s precisely these school reformers and entrepreneurs who seek to gain the most from these types of reforms.  It’s no secret that Obama’s plan for education aims to expand the existence of charter school.  Both Obama, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are huge proponents of charter schools, and have stressed increasing charter schools as one of the criteria’s for receiving federal money through the Race to the Top (RTTT) program.[5] They will also view favorably any applicants’ plans that look to experiment with merit-based pay for teachers.   Most charters schools tend to be non-union, requiring that their employees work longer hours, and often times for less pay.  While in some states or districts they have been legally obligated to allow unions, a right-to-work state like Florida certainly isn’t one of those.  Many of these free-marketeer education reformers and charter school operators would like nothing more than to have a non-unionized workforce, where they can easily extract more labor from teachers at a cheaper rate.  Unions tend to afford a certain degree of protection for workers from this “race to the bottom”, and it’s precisely these protections, as well as a strong public education system, that bills like HB7189 and SB 6 threaten to erode.

There’s also a similar bill that recently passed the House and Senate which aims to expand the amount of money corporations can contribute in exchange for tax-exceptions to a State voucher program for parents seeking to send their kids to private or religious schools.[6] The money the state could be collecting in taxes could be used to fund public education instead.  While advocates of such measure cite a study showing that this program actually saved the state money, they ignore that unlike private schools, public schools have a higher rate of special needs students, which tends to drive up the average per pupil cost of education.  Furthermore, there are serious questions about separation of church and state if parents are being allowed to fund religious education at the tax payers’ expense.

These are certainly tough times for public educators in Florida, but it’s important to remember that we need not simply accept this situation.  While the obstacles are certainty formidable, ultimately the system can’t function without us.  Many teachers, their friends and families included, incessantly emailed and called their representatives demanding that they vote no on the HB7189 and SB 6, yet both passed.   The only thing standing between this bill becoming law is Governor Christ’s signature; which he initially said he would sign into law if the bill came before him, but as of lately has been expressing some doubts regarding certain parts of the bill.  We as educators, parents, students, and supporters need to be prepared to deal with this scenario, and we must meet these affronts on our profession and our public education system with fierce opposition.  We have already tried going through the proper channels and through the political process, and not only has that not gotten us what we want, but if we continue to do so it may very well guarantee that we get exactly what we don’t want.  They’ve heard our pleas, and they’ve chosen not to listen! Now we must stand united and escalate the struggle so that we make sure that they have no choice but to listen and do as we say!  Remember that without us the whole system crumbles.

While it’s true that withdrawing our labor carries with it some stiff penalties, it would be impossible for them to enforce these punishments if we’re able to organize a statewide strike.  That was precisely the same idea behind the Civil Rights movements’ tactic of filling the jails. They knew that they’re commitment to civil disobedience would land them jail, but they also clearly understood that if everybody got arrested, and they filled the jails beyond capacity, the police would have to let them go or risk their jails being rendered inoperable.  At the very least, we need to be coordinating actions and activities that bring us out into the streets, and demonstrate to them that we’re real people standing out there; not just some voices on an answering machine or soon to be deleted unread message in an inbox.  There are plenty of other actions we can take, that while not going as far as a strike, send out a clear message that we’re angry, and that we’re organized.  If they see that we’re organized, then our threats to vote them out for supporting these bills become less hollow, and they start to see us as a group of people that they need to take seriously.  What’s imperative right now is that we organize autonomously and from the ground up, neighborhood by neighborhood, school by school, and district by district.  We must be aware that while the unions can aid us in part of the struggle, due to legal constraints they may not be able to facilitate moving this fight as far as it needs to go.  For those reasons, organizing autonomously would allow us to bypass such constraint, as well as providing us with the space to organize with the broader community of parents, students, and supporters who want to save public education and our professions integrity.  Let’s utilize this momentum, and take some inspiration from the recent student walkouts against these bills to build a movement to improve public education.[7] We must not be defeated by our fears, legitimate as they may be, or because we forwent creative actions that demonstrate our power as organized workers and communities in order to adhere to a failing strategy of trying to work through the proper channels.  Now is the time for more serious action, and we need to be combining our efforts and coordinating our struggle if we hope to stand a chance of defeating these bills.

[1] “Florida teachers’ pay faces big overhaul: A proposed bill that would tie teachers’ pay to student performance rather than years of experience has many educators worried.” http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/03/14/1529610_p2/teachers-pay-would-depend-on-student.html#ixzz0k0LZLimt

[2] ibíd.

[3] “UF Study Finds Link Between Income, Test Scores”. http://www.justnews.com/news/22910656/detail.html

[4] “Florida teachers’ pay faces big overhaul: A proposed bill that would tie teachers’ pay to student performance rather than years of experience has many educators worried.” http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/03/14/1529610_p2/teachers-pay-would-depend-on-student.html#ixzz0k0LZLimt

[5] “Race to the Top: Unions Asked to Play Ball for Education Dollars”.


[6] “Florida Senate votes to link teachers’ pay to student progress and expand vouchers”.  http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/education/fl-education-reform-bills-20100324,0,5955866.story?page=1

[7] “Miami-Dade pupils walk out of school in protest”. http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/04/09/1571795/miami-dade-pupils-walk-out-of.html?story_link=email_msg