I am a public school teacher in Tampa, FL who has lived in Florida since 1998 and have been teaching since 2003.

Ernest Hooper
Ernest Hooper, Columnist and East Hillsborough Bureau Chief, Tampa Bay Times

If you live in the Tampa Bay area–and perhaps anywhere in Florida–the man above needs no introduction. Ernest Hooper has been sharing his thoughts with readers for many years, always concluding with his characteristic “that’s all I’m saying.”

I have had the honor of knowing Ernest for about a year now, and how our relationship started and since blossomed is nothing short of serendipitous. We first met through a chance introduction at a local coffee shop last fall. We shook hands, I told him that I was a fan, and we parted ways. But life seems to find ways for us to keep crossing paths and building on our friendship.

This past March, Ernest was the keynote speaker at an Alliance for Public Schools event showcasing increasing graduation rates in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. He spoke eloquently about how he started as a journalist because one of his teachers encouraged him to join the school newspaper after reading his sports stories. Before he left, I reintroduced myself, complimented him on his speech, and told him a little bit about the Teacher Voice blog and podcast.

After exchanging emails a few times, he asked me to take part in his Sunday Conversation piece, and I eagerly agreed. We met at a local restaurant and, although the actual interview only lasted 30 minutes, we talked for well over two hours about public education, the Florida Legislature, the coming elections, and just about everything in between. I walked away even more impressed with Ernest. Our wide ranging conversation revealed him to be an extraordinarily inquisitive, insightful, intelligent and humble human being.

Serendipity struck again this past Monday when I found Ernest in the same coffee shop. He asked if I had plans for the next day, and when I said I had none he invited me to attend the “2018 Political Hob Nob” hosted by the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce at the Tampa Convention Center. How could I say no?

Before we entered the ballroom, Ernest asked me if I had a notepad. I left everything in my car so he supplied me with the long type that journalists often carry, and he officially “deputized” me as a journalist. Ostensibly, he was there to write an upcoming column about which candidates for the Florida Legislature would take the FEA pledge to fight for raising teacher salaries to the national average by 2023; Ernest had a vested interest in this story, though, because his son Ethan had started his teaching career in Orlando county the day before.

We were men on a mission.

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The one picture I had the presence of mind to take during the event, mainly because I was engaged in the moment, the conversations, and watching Ernest work.

For over two hours, I was Ernest’s wingman as we walked the room, shaking hands, asking questions, and listening to answers. I kept a tab of who would take the pledge and who would not, but I will leave that for Ernest to tell you about when his column is published on Friday, August 24th. Regardless of their political affiliations, most of the candidates wanted to support public education and were very cordial.

Most, but not all.

Easily the most salient interaction I witnessed involved one in which a candidate said more with what was not said. Ernest approached the candidate, asked about the pledge, and the candidate in question did not know what the national average for teacher salaries is (just shy of $60K), what the average salary is for Florida’s teachers (a little under $48K), or that our state ranks 45th in teacher salaries when compared to the U.S. Instead, Ernest was rebuffed twice: the first time over having to pay for the table to be at the event and that the candidate had to talk to people who could offer support via their vote (Ernest and I were the only ones talking to this candidate); the second time, only a moment later, when the candidate’s aide clearly ushered someone over to take our place. We were dismissed with a “call me for an interview.”

As a Social Studies teacher and active citizen, this was the most shameful, disheartening display from a potential public official. Regardless of whether or not Ernest and I (or anyone for that matter) live in this candidate’s district, this person potentially represents Hillsborough County and all of us. To see a fellow citizen turned away with a dismissive “just a journalist” attitude is the wrong tact to take for any candidate or elected official.

We pressed on.

I had to take my leave from Ernest before I really wanted to, but I needed to get home. I thanked him for the opportunity, and kept the radio off on my drive home to reflect on our time together. While meeting the candidates and networking with future legislators was indeed fun, the biggest takeaway from the experience was simply spending more time with Ernest and learning from his gracious nature. He introduced me each time as his friend first, then as a teacher. He encouraged me to give cards away for Teacher Voice. He invited me into the discussion often, allowing me to share my expertise with the candidates, both in terms of my personal experience as a classroom teacher and as informed public education advocate.

If you don’t know Ernest, I hope that you are fortunate enough to one day meet the man behind the column. He’s quick with a smile, has a great laugh, an affable nature, and is genuinely listening to what others have to say. Just walking around the room for those two hours and talking to him in between candidates was about the best way I could have spent my Tuesday afternoon.

And I can’t wait for serendipity to strike again.

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The notepad that Ernest gave me when he “deputized” me as a journalist.

 

 

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Dr. Stacy Hahn, USF Professor, HCPS Board Candidate

The latest episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Dr. Stacy Hahn, one of the School Board candidates for District 2 of Hillsborough County Public Schools. With a 26 year career in public education, first as a special needs classroom teacher, then as a professor at the University of South Florida (Go Bulls!) preparing new educators, Stacy Hahn hopes to bring a career’s worth of education experience and advocacy to the HCPS School Board.

During this episode we discuss her career, the local and national teacher shortage, how to draw people into the profession by restoring its respect through teacher autonomy and leadership, her work at a local community school, and several other issues that have cropped up during her campaign.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Stacy Hahn, please visit her website. You can also Like/Follow her Facebook page to keep up to date with her news and campaign events, or join in the conversation on Twitter.

Thanks again for listening, everyone!

Support Public Ed

When the Teacher Voice project began over a year ago, another name under consideration was “Teaching Matters”. It was alluring due to the double meaning, but in the end Teacher Voice won out when asking family and friends for feedback. That said, the original essay I wrote is below, and in an election year it is even more imperative that we work to elect legislators and school board members who will support our students, our profession, and will invite us to be part of the conversation for how to improve public education for all stakeholders involved in the process.

While riding up an escalator up to the next level at a mall nearly 30 years ago, my father turned to me and asked me a question: what do you want to do when you grow up? It took me by surprise when he said these words, and I didn’t have an answer at the ready. So I thought about it for a minute and said, “I think I want to be a teacher.” He frowned a bit and told me that I was too intelligent, would be wasting my time and talent, and concluded with “You should think about going into business.” His response left me more than a little perplexed, especially considering he was married to a teacher himself.

Many years later, I never intended to be a teacher. After finishing my B.A. and while working on my M.A., I was pondering whether to go to law school to earn a J.D. or to continue my graduate studies and earn a Ph.D. and become a university professor. But none of that ever happened because I stepped into a classroom as a substitute teacher and never looked back. It only took me a few weeks before an epiphany struck me in a way that all but solidified my career choice—teaching matters.

Teaching matters is a simple yet profound idea, and one upon which we can all agree despite the current political climate here in Florida and across the U.S. What person would disagree with this notion? Aren’t we all teachers in our own way? We teach our children lessons long before they ever set foot in school, and long after they graduate. We teach them by what we say and, far more critically, by how we act. Surely, then, we can all agree on the importance of teaching.

Teaching is so much more than a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, though—it’s also about inspiring students to pursue their dreams, encouraging them to give their best effort at all times, providing emotional support when their lives are experiencing turmoil, instilling an insatiable inquisitiveness in their minds to ensure they will be lifelong learners, and caring deeply about each and every single one of them as individual human beings who are worthy of dignity simply for having been born—and none of these things that teachers do can ever be measured by a VAM score.

Teaching matters, ultimately, because we care about our kids, our future.

Teaching as a chosen profession, however, is on the decline, especially here in the Sunshine State. I don’t need to quote recent headlines about the national teacher shortage, or about how our legislators are flummoxed by how to address the challenge, or about how Tallahassee has been squeezing blood from a stone and leaving every school district in the state financially hamstrung due to the insufficient funding for education. And while I could offer numerous potential solutions to our legislators about drawing “the best and the brightest” minds into the profession and keeping them here—such as raising the salaries of teachers from the lowest quintile in the U.S. to at least the national average, which itself already lags behind the average of all college graduate salaries by 20 percent—I’ll offer only two that won’t even cost the legislature any money at all: 1) respect the profession; 2) let us help by sharing our expertise.

Many of our legislators are evidently fond of maligning teachers: we’re lazy, or evil, or whatever other negative, sweeping generalization they’d like to heap upon us on any given day. Would our legislators say such things about our police officers, firefighters, social workers, or other public servants who have dedicated their lives to a career that strives to help individuals and our society as a whole? If our representatives and senators want to solve the riddle, it begins first and foremost by acknowledging the that teaching matters and that the tens of thousands of educators who walk into classrooms are worthy of their respect for all that we do for our kids and our future.

Equally as important, legislators should be tapping into our expertise. Virtually all of them have never been in the classroom, yet they act is if they know what’s best for our students. The general consensus about what constitutes being an expert is having at least 10,000 hours of experience in any given field, which means approximately 11 years of teaching if we were to only count time spent in front of students. If we were to include all of the hours spent outside the classroom that are dedicated to developing lesson plans, grading assignments, maintaining records, attending faculty meetings, engaging in professional development, earning additional certifications and advanced degrees, the number would probably drop to 5 years. Thousands of us undoubtedly fit this criterion, and I’m confident many would be willing to lend a hand to provide insight into the challenges our educational system faces.

I don’t think that our legislators are going to suddenly respect us or ask us for our informed opinion any time soon, however, which is why this open letter serves as a clarion call to every teacher in our state and beyond. We need to do what we do best, which is teach. But not only must we teach our students, we must teach our legislators about the issues we’re all facing. We can do this by sending emails and letters while they are in session and, perhaps more importantly, starting to build relationships with the legislators representing our individual counties by requesting face-to-face meetings to have engaging discussions and exchanging ideas.

We all know that teaching matters. It’s time to work collaboratively to do what’s best for our kids and our future.

 

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Vote for Scott “Mr. H” Hottenstein for District 6, Hillsborough County School Board

In the final weeks of July, the Tampa Bay Times released its list of endorsed candidates for the Hillsborough County School Board. While I do concur with the editorial board’s picks for District 1 (Bill Person), District 2 (Stacy Hahn), and District 4 (Melissa Snively) (click the links to learn more about these candidates or donate to their campaigns), I believe the board does not see the intangibles possessed by Scott Hottenstein that make him the best candidate for this role.

Although the Times called Scott Hottenstein a “teacher in the district” and “first time candidate,” that is not how we should view Scott at all. Having interviewed nearly all of the District 6 candidates for the Teacher Voice podcast, what stood out were Scott’s attributes from his previous employer: The United States Navy. We shouldn’t view Scott only as a teacher; instead, we should see him through the lens of a career Navy veteran with half a lifetime of leadership who also happens to have five years of classroom experience.

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“Mr. H” and family during his Navy career

Here’s why anyone who cares about Public Education here in Hillsborough County should vote for Scott Hottenstein:

  1. 24 year career as a Navy Officer, culminating as Lieutenant Commander and second in command of his entire base on Sicily when he retired. Quite simply, the man would not have advanced through the ranks without demonstrating tremendous leadership capacity.
  2. Successfully navigated and excelled in a large bureaucratic organization (U.S. Navy) Being a school board member for the 8th largest district in the United States, then, would be an easy transition in which Scott could use his intelligence and communication skills to the benefit of all stakeholders, especially our students.
  3. As second in command of his base, Scott also had experience managing budgets that numbered into the tens of millions, all of which filtered through multiple revenue streams, much like our own school district’s $3 billion behemoth budget that includes local, state, and federal funding. Surely his past skill set in this regard will scale up for his primary job of being a sound fiscal steward of our tax dollars.
  4. Scott is a public servant, plain and simple. After dedicating over half his life to serving his fellow citizens as a United States Naval Officer, Scott willfully chose to become a teacher and continue his public service by educating the next generation. Scott left his post in the Navy with numerous security clearances and easily could have commanded a six figure salary working with a private company that does contractual or consulting work for our nation’s military. Instead, Scott chose to spend his days teaching 7th grade Civics at Barrington Middle School, coaching track, initiating a chess club and a school government chapter, and even manning the school when it became a shelter during Hurricane Irma. Scott is the very living embodiment of servant leadership.

In summation, Scott “Mr. H” Hottenstein is an honorable man of integrity who has always sought to give back to his fellow citizens, first in the Navy, now in our schools. He has earned my vote for the above stated reasons as well as running his campaign on small donations, and a grassroots effort powered by student volunteers so they can gain first-hand, real world experience with civic engagement. But I am only one vote, and I would encourage all of residents of Hillsborough to vote for him as well. Scott dedicated the first half of his life to our country, let’s help him dedicate the next phase of his public service to Hillsborough’s students and their future.

If you’d like to hear from Scott Hottenstein himself, here is his interview on the Teacher Voice podcast; we discuss his Navy career, why he became a teacher, and why he wants to run for the Hillsborough County School Board. You can also learn more about his campaign platform and/or make a small donation at his website, Like or Follow his page on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter. Please consider voting for Scott Hottenstein and sharing this post with other friends and family who live, work and vote here in Hillsborough County. #VoteVeteran #ElectATeacher

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Scott, his wife Laura, and their two sons, William (left) and Iain (right)

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Nick Guy
Nick Guy, District 1 Candidate for Sarasota School Board, along with Heather, Reese, and Riley.

In Nick’s own words, he’s about principles, not politics.

The former teacher turned IT analyst wants to help his former profession and all students throughout Sarasota county, mainly by fighting back against the march of privatization of public education that has been happening during the last decade. He is in a formidable race against an incumbent who is largely funded by “dark money” pouring in from PACs that have ties to voucher and for-profit charter proponents.

If you’d like to learn more about Nick Guy, you can check out his website, Like or Follow his Facebook page, or follow the conversation on Twitter.

Be sure to check out Nick’s cool commercial below, please share the podcast with other Sarasota voters / public education advocates, and have a great weekend, everyone!

Charlie Kennedy
Charlie Kennedy, former high school teacher, District 2 Manatee County Schools Board member

All over the United States this election season, numerous teachers are running for office on the heels of the wave of teacher walkouts that happened in states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona. Long before that, however, one of Charlie’s students challenged him to run for his local school board in 2014.

To his surprise, he won.

Charlie first appeared on the Teacher Voice podcast nearly one year ago, which provided listeners with his backstory and his advocacy for public education in Manatee County and beyond. Now Charlie is up for re-election, has an opponent, and we sat down recently to discuss his accomplishments during his first term as well as what he would like to achieve over the next four years.

If you’d like to learn more about Charlie, you can read his blog/website here, Like / Follow his page on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter. And if you are a voter (or know one) who lives in Manatee County, please share the podcast with others.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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Mike Alvarez, Democratic Candidate for House District 62, along with his wife Amanda and daughter Abigail

This week’s guest on the podcast is Mike Alvarez, a Democratic candidate for House District 62 here in Hillsborough County. He is a former U.S. Marine who is looking to continue his service to the public by helping his home town of Tampa, directly addressing issues such as public education, mental health, and veterans. Mike learned first hand as a child that public schools are necessary to thrive later on in life, and wants to ensure his own family and all children also have the same opportunity to receive a high-quality free public education.

If you are a voter who lives in HD62 and would like to learn more about Mike, his campaign, or the endorsements he has already received, you can learn more at his website or Facebook page. If you do not live in HD62 but know someone who does, please share this podcast with him or her, especially if they are planning on voting for Susan Valdes.

Thanks again for listening and sharing with others, everyone!

P.S. – Although she is not pictured, Mike and his wife Amanda recently welcomed their newest addition, Madison, to their family. Click the Facebook link above to see pictures and/or Like/Follow his page.

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Waterset, the newest Charter Schools USA located in Apollo Beach, Hillsborough County

Two weeks ago today, on June 28th, I attended my first Charter Schools USA board meeting at Waterset, the newest CSUSA school that was built in the Waterset development on the south side of Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County. Nestled among a sprawling development that includes a clubhouse and homes for the upper-middle class residents of the area, Waterset is a handsome facility with state of the art technology and classrooms that are surely meant to lure in unsuspecting parents who only want the best for their children.

Before getting to the meeting itself, let me unequivocally state that I am not opposed to charter schools or school choice on principle. As an International Baccalaureate teacher at an A rated magnet school here in Hillsborough County, it would be dishonest of me to take a stand against school choice when I work at a choice school. And if the Florida Legislature adequately funded public education here in this state so that all choices could receive equal funding, I would probably have little to rail against.

But this is Florida, after all, and our elected officials clearly have a pet project of underfunding traditional public schools while shoveling money at charters and vouchers. So rail against this inequity I must.

 

When Al Shanker first proposed the idea of charter schools in 1988, they were meant to be a place that allowed teachers to take control and offer innovative approaches to students who struggled with traditional education. He wanted professionals who knew best to be unencumbered by bureaucratic red tape, allowed to propose and administer their own programs, and flourish alongside students who needed their help. It’s a noble idea, yet one that has been co-opted and corrupted by corporate interests.

For those who are unaware of the charter taxpayer scam being perpetuated by several privately held companies—the two largest of which are Academica and Charter Schools USA—the following is a brief primer (although you can listen to this excellent podcast with Pat Hall to gain a deeper understanding):

In 1996, Florida approved charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools. By law, these schools are considered non-profit just like their traditional counterparts and are funded with taxpayer dollars. Many of the early charter schools were small operations set up by parents or other community members who wanted to serve niche student populations who struggled in traditional settings, just as Shanker had first proposed (Pepin Academies and F.A.C.E. are good examples of charters that are genuinely non-profit here in HCPS).

Somewhere along the way, however, this model has been perverted due to a loophole in the legislation, which has allowed for-profit charter management companies to create an industry that is bilking Florida taxpayers to the tune of tens (if not hundreds at this point) of millions of dollars per year. In essence, this scam works with three key players: real estate, construction, and the for-profit charter management companies such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, Charter School Associates, etc. These companies have numerous subsidiaries that allow them to rig the game at the expense of us all. One LLC will purchase the land for cheap, another LLC will build the school, and, after the for-profit company has installed a technically “non-profit” board, this board effectively turns around and pays the for-profit management company for back office services, “management fees”, and exorbitant rental-lease agreements that are typically astronomical compared to what other buildings in the area receive on a per-square-foot basis. In the end, on average, these companies end up siphoning off nearly HALF of the public dollars meant for students and classrooms.

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Ryan Construction works alongside Red Apple Development, the construction LLC of CSUSA

Worst of all, Tallahassee’s incestuous relationship with these for-profit charter management companies are a direct result of the legislation we have seen in the last two years under House Speaker Corcoran. Manny Diaz, for example, one of the principal architects behind HB7069 that ensured more money was devoted to charters, draws a six figure salary for Doral College, a for-profit institution affiliated with Academica, the largest of these profiteers in the Sunshine State. Hello conflict of interest! Florida ethics laws are clearly a joke to these elected officials.

***Back to the CSUSA Board Meeting***

When I walked into the meeting, I was greeted by Kerianne, a woman who works for CSUSA and travels the state to act as a board liaison on behalf of the company. Although technically a public meeting, it was held in a fairly small room that included a long table with chairs around it and only three empty chairs for onlookers. Clearly these meetings are not well attended, which I am sure they would prefer.

The meeting itself was fairly quick, and the people I met were all quite friendly. I have no doubt that the administrators and parent-facilitators at the table (as well as the teachers and staff who work at these schools) genuinely want the best for the students they serve. Ultimately I believe anyone who works directly with children on a daily basis are simply giving back to the next generation and their local communities. But there were a few highlights that are noteworthy:

  • The CSUSA board liaison, Kerianne, effectively ran the meeting. The board members are simply there to go through the motions and rubber stamp everything.
  • One of the items approved regarding SB7026 was described as “lots of boilerplate insert school here”, which contained information for how CSUSA would handle school safety initiatives. Some districts are allowing them to “piggy back” on their SRO or SSO initiatives, but other counties are resisting and telling the charters to pay for officers themselves (HCPS has told them that they are responsible for the cost). CSUSA plans to use their employees as guardians or contract with private security firms if the need arises.
  • Most notably, the SB7026 legislation also includes provisions for addressing mental health, but if CSUSA doesn’t receive enough funding from the state or districts for school psychologists or social workers, the schools are to kick the problem back to the parents for them to handle privately.
  • Rod Jurado, the board chair, noted that CSUSA has been speaking with Senator Bill Galvano (the Senate President in waiting) about “seeing what we can do to get into Manatee County.”
  • Board members apparently have term limits, yet were given extensions by a vote.
  • Noted that CSUSA will be opening (or recently opened) 9 new schools, serving 8500 students (sidenote: at $7408 per-student this means CSUSA will receive $63 million in new revenue, with approximately $28.3 million being added to their bottom lines—all at taxpayer and traditional public education expense).
  • A mention of growing concern about securing bonds for the new schools being built before the interest rates went up.
  • Review of school grades for the local CSUSA schools under the board’s purview; interestingly enough, they only discussed the three schools that received an A. Waterset barely earned a C with 337 points.

And, perhaps in an unintentionally ironic yet comical statement, Mr. Jurado explicitly made mention that the schools and board are non-profit, carrying on about how he nor any other board member receive a salary or stipend, and that they should all help correct this misconception when speaking to the public. I still wonder if he would have even said it had I not been in the room.

In the end, the board meeting is largely a ruse that is intended to look like an actual board meeting. Not once was there any discussion of any agenda items, and what discussion that did transpire was mostly explanations that were given to the board from the CSUSA liaison, Kerianne. Although other meetings typically revolve around “recruitment and retainment” of students to maximize profit, most of the money talk was confined to securing bonds for their new buildings, which are owned by the companies themselves and not the public that funded them. The entire enterprise is a racket, and all taxpayers in Florida should be aware and demand better from our elected officials. The Florida Legislature should legislatively close the loophole that allows these charlatans to legally steal from public education coffers that are filled with our tax dollars.

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The one page agenda, featuring a picture of a curiously homogeneous classroom

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Debra Bellanti, Democratic Candidate for House District 60, along with her husband, Anthony, and their daughter, Josephine.

As we continue the summer of podcasts, this week’s special guest is Debra Bellanti, the Democratic candidate for House District 60 of the Florida Legislature. While she is running as a Democrat, Debra is building a bipartisan coalition of mothers who are deeply concerned about the level of funding devoted to public education and how it affects our students’ safety. For these efforts and others, she has received numerous endorsements and distinctions.

In addition to discussing education, Debra also shares her views on several other issues that are critical for the entire Hillsborough delegation in general and her South Tampa community in particular. Please listen and share with other voters of House District 60 or concerned public education advocates!

If you’d like to learn more about Debra, you can check out her website here, like or follow her on Facebook, or follow the conversation on Twitter.

Thanks again for listening, everyone!

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Sue Woltanski, Co-Founder of Accountabaloney and Monroe County School Board Member

This week’s guest on the Teacher Voice podcast is Sue Woltanski, a mother, pediatrician, public education advocate, and now recently elected Monroe County School Board member. We spoke over the phone this past Thursday, one day after the FLDOE released the school grades, which happens to be her area of expertise and what prompted the creation of the Accountabaloney blog. For those of you who are parents and don’t know how school grades are calculated or ever wondered why we have so much testing here in the Sunshine state, this podcast will be particularly insightful.

If you’d like to learn more about Sue and her advocacy efforts, you can also like or follow the Accountabaloney page on Facebook, or follow the conversation on Twitter.

Thanks again for tuning in, everyone, please listen/share with others, and have a great week!