Teacher union president: Do state lawmakers want Florida’s kids to fail?

April 30, 2019 7:00 am
high school classroom, school, education

Classroom. Credit: Pixabay.

Do state lawmakers want Florida’s kids to fail?

They say they don’t. This year we’ve heard lots of nice words from politicians about “ensuring every child has a world-class education,” “family empowerment” and providing students with “opportunity, regardless of their ZIP code or status.” But actions speak louder than talking points, and the message is crystal clear.

State leaders have gone to war against our neighborhood public schools, and the great majority of Florida’s 2.8 million school kids stand to lose.

Let’s look at some of what the state Senate and House are doing for — or to — our students during this legislative session.

Taking money from public schools and students to fund a huge tax-dollar giveaway to private schools

The “Family Empowerment” voucher program will take money set aside for public schools and give those tax dollars to unaccountable private and religious schools. This will be the state’s fifth voucher program, and the largest ever to be funded directly from the state’s education budget. The program will have an immediate impact on funding for neighborhood public schools, reducing the amount available for resources and programs for our students. The cost will start out at more than $100 million and grow each year as the program is expanded.

Lawmakers may talk about providing kids with a “world-class education,” but we have no way of knowing what kind of education students get at private schools. These schools are not subject to state accountability standards — they don’t have to hire certified teachers or even teach facts. The state warns that diplomas from private schools may not be accepted by “the receiving educational institution or employer,” meaning students would have a tough time getting into college or finding a job.

Despite coming from public taxpayer dollars, most of the vouchers in this new program are likely to go to religious schools. More than 80 percent of the students using Florida’s tax-credit vouchers this year attend religious schools, according to state figures.

Stealing control from local school districts

The House and Senate seek to exponentially expand the “Schools of Hope” charter school program, opening up more than 400 communities to having for-profit operators come in and start schools that will get a share of local school district funds, regardless of the local district’s needs. Again, this program stands to reduce the resources and programs available to students at neighborhood public schools while enriching private interests with taxpayer funds. For local districts, it might be more apt to call the program “Schools of Despair” as they watch neighborhood public schools starve while charter schools open and — sometimes without warning — close. To be clear, charter schools are technically public schools but are run by private, sometimes for-profit interests and are not subject to local school board oversight. But taxpayers pay for them anyway.

Increasing the odds that a child won’t have a certified teacher

Florida faces an unprecedented teacher shortage, with more than 4,000 vacancies reported at the start of this school year and more than 10,000 projected. Pay is a big part of our problems with recruiting and retaining teachers. Teacher pay in Florida ranks 46th in the nation, and too many of our teachers must hold second jobs simply to make ends meet.

Teachers deserve to be paid like the professionals they are, with fair, competitive salaries that they can count on from year to year. This year the Legislature is considering putting more than $200 million dollars in a bonus scheme instead of making a substantial investment in funds that can be used for salaries. Over the years, educators have watched several failed bonus schemes come and go. Meanwhile, our teacher shortage has continued to grow.

Raiding locally collected tax dollars intended for neighborhood schools and students

While the Legislature woefully underfunded K-12 public schools last year, approving a per-student increase of only 47 cents, local voters have stepped up to support their schools. In the past year, voters in 21 Florida counties approved referendums to improve funding for neighborhood public schools and increase teacher pay.

Not so fast, the Legislature says. No matter how specifically a referendum tied funds to neighborhood public schools, new legislation would force districts to share the tax money collected for the sake of neighborhood schools with charter schools. Yet again, neighborhood public schools and their students will lose if House Bill 7123 becomes law.

Allowing guns in classrooms

On top of all that, lawmakers are moving this session to allow armed teachers in our classrooms. Never mind that there is no evidence that will make schools safer. Never mind that putting in guns in classrooms is likely to make our schools more dangerous for students and staff. Never mind that a majority of the public and educators do not support arming teachers. Lawmakers appear set on offering districts a cheap path to false sense of security.

So, do state lawmakers want Florida’s kids to fail? Considering they would send thousands of students to unaccountable private schools on the public dime, while steadily starving the neighborhood public schools attended by millions of other children, the answer appears to be, yes, they do.

This session is playing out as a story about how a system set up over decades to provide high-quality, free education for our students was destroyed in the space of a few weeks. The story is a tragedy, for our students and for Florida’s future.

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Fedrick Ingram
Fedrick Ingram

Fedrick Ingram is the president of the Florida Education Association, representing teachers, higher education faculty and school employees across the state. He is a music teacher, a school bandleader and a former Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year. He and his wife have three children, all of whom have attended public schools.