It's been a busy few weeks in the education world. Here in Florida, we've watched the legislature debate (and ultimately pass) two awful pieces of legislation. We've watched these debates not only in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but also in the context of an ongoing teacher strike in West Virginia (which, earlier this week, seems to have come to a close), as well as the simmering discontent and talk of strikes in both Kentucky and Oklahoma.
These events are of a sort that have been seen before (with some exception for the "wildcat" nature of the WV strike), but it's been a relatively novel experience for me. Beyond changes in geography , the two(ish) years since my last blog post have seen a shift in my professional life from charter school settings to a public school. (I know, I know - "charter schools are public schools," a few in my networks will cry - but that's a conversation for a different day.) Moreover, I've spent this year learning what it means to be a building rep for my local teachers' union.
As not only a public school teacher, but a public school teacher and active union member, I've done my best to stay abreast of changes in policy that affect me and my fellow teachers (yes, even the ones that don't pay their dues). I read the news. I've met with union leadership. I met with a State Representative. I've called legislators. I've called (and emailed) the Governor's office. I've reported back to teachers at my school site on the proposals and changes that affect their day to day lives and bottom lines.
And yet, in the last week, I've been able to find reason for optimism.
If you know me, and you've been following the news, you are likely (and rightfully) shocked to hear me say those words. I'm not known for my optimism. Let me explain.
The attack on teachers in Florida has been picking up steam at a remarkable pace in the short time I've been here. Last summer, the legislature pushed through an $418 million dollar education bill that was widely opposed by education stakeholders. I'm not just talking teachers unions here - superintendents and principals organizations opposed it, as did parent groups around the state. Among the notable provisions, HB7069 made changes in state laws to allow private charter school companies to use tax dollars earmarked for (public) school improvement. The kicker? The charter companies retain ownership of the newly renovated or constructed real estate. Remarkably, the bill's primary champion, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, was hardly challenged for his blatant conflicts of interest (Corcoran's wife founded a charter school and serves as its CEO). I didn't hear much from teacher friends about it.
The last few weeks have been different. Not in what we've gotten from the legislature, of course. They passed (with the help of Democratic Senator Bill Montford) HB 7055, which included still more money for charter - and voucher - schools, as well as a provision that will decertify any teachers union (not police or firefighters, of course), should membership fall below 50%. They also passed SB 7026 (the "school safety bill"), which included the controversial "school marshal" plan (ultimately, and bizarrely, they removed teachers from the list of school personnel who would be eligible to be deputized and armed for response to an active shooter, leaving virtually every other school employee - from cafeteria worker to paraprofessional to office staff).
Now? I hear teachers talking - to each other, and to their legislatures. My school, which started the year at 22% union membership, gained 6 new members in a month. It should be fairly obvious, but in threatening teachers' bottom lines by threatening collective bargaining, and the negotiated contracts that provide teachers the protections that many have long taken for granted, the legislature managed to light a fire under teachers in a big way.
So, what's next? I'd suggest that there are significant lessons to be unlearned moving forward. We've got this sense that if we just care enough - about our students, about our classroom, about our data, and on and on - then we're doing all we can. Maybe it's because so many teachers venerate Dr. Suess, and remember - if nothing else beyond "I do not want them, Sam I Am" - the closing line to The Lorax: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Or, worse, we accept that it's the price one pays for doing something they love.
We hear this all the time. "No one goes into teaching for the money." "You've gotta really love what you do to be a teacher." Or, in Charter Land™ : "we have to think about what's best for kids" (read: teachers' health and well being be damned).
It's time to be on the offensive. We're professionals, often with advanced degrees. We know what our students need, and what we need to serve them. Asking to be compensated appropriately and provided with the resources necessary to do our jobs is not unreasonable. Asking for a clear career path and job security is not unreasonable.
Luckily, it seems that teachers here in Florida are waking up to these truths, and finding the voice to turn these realizations into demands. What we need now is to keep talking, keep calling, keep making demands.
And if those demands aren't heard? Look to West Virginia.