On this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast, I sat down and spoke with Henry “Shake” Washington, one of the two finalists who made it past the primary and into the general election on November 6th. Although Shake has already been endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times, I invited him on the podcast so that voters could hear from the man himself. We discuss his 42 year career with HCPS, why he decided to run for the School Board, and his vision for the future. Please listen to what he has to say and share with others!
The above video contains my complete comments on the lack of taxation. Please watch for context for what is detailed below.
It is no secret that school districts all across the Sunshine State have been forced to squeeze blood from a stone by the Florida Legislature for over two decades, and especially since the Great Recession. As noted in the first “Numbers Don’t Lie” piece, Florida went from 27th in per-pupil spending in 1998 to 44th in 2018. Had we kept pace with inflation alone from 20 years ago, Florida would need to spend $9,913 per student. Instead, we currently spend $7,408.
But it’s far worse than simply not keeping pace with inflation. When Ernest Hooper and I were interviewing candidates at the Tampa Hob Nob a few weeks ago, HD64 Rep. Jamie Grant–by his own admission–stated that the three areas of the economy that have actually outpaced inflation were health care, higher education and K-12 education. This effectively compounds the problem, because not only has the Florida Legislature refused to make a meaningful investment in public education, their decision to be parsimonious has made the reduced spending power of those scant dollars that much more signficant (assuming his statement is true).
Hillsborough County is not the only county seeking tax referenda. It’s happening all over the state, which John Romano wrote about recently in the Tampa Bay Times. Going back to this past March, citizens of various counties are 12 for 12 in voting for some type of tax referendum to support their schools. Clearly voters are starting to understand that Tallahassee has gotten us all into these messes because of its ideological zeal for reducing taxes.
People who stand against the tax referenda do so for two principal reasons: 1) they claim “we’re taxed too much already”; 2) they believe Hillsborough County Public Schools has mismanaged its funds. Let’s examine these claims in detail:
“We’re Taxed Too Much Already”
Regarding the first claim, this is typical response from just about anyone when the subject of raising taxes is mentioned. The facts, however, do not support this claim. If anything, we are taxed too little in a state that is experiencing such rapid population growth. The lack of taxation is directly linked to: the unwillingness to investment in public education by the Florida Legislature, resulting in students and staff sweating in schools; the traffic congestion we get caught up in on a daily basis; why Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has one of the lowest deputy-to-citizen ratios in the state, etc. Simply put, there’s not enough money to go around.
1. Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states when it comes to “tax burden” (i.e. per-capita tax revenue generation).
2. Hillsborough County ranks 52nd out of 67 counties in Florida, which means we have the 15th lowest tax burden in the second lowest state in the U.S.
To say that “we are taxed too much already” is a preposterous statement that clearly ignores these facts and traffics in hyperbole when one considers the actual numbers.
HCPS Mismanages Its Funds
When it comes to the second claim about HCPS mismanaging its funds, it must be addressed in two parts. First, there are the optics of some of the board’s more questionable spending decisions over the last three years. Many critics often cite spending nearly a million dollars on the Gibson Report, nearly a million dollars for new school board offices/relocation of Human Resources from its original location to the Instructional Services Center, remodeling/refreshing the audio-visual equipment in the board room, etc. All told these items add up to perhaps $3 million across the last three years, which amounts to approximately 0.00033% of its total annual budget per year.
This is clearly a case of picking out a few trees while missing the entire forest.
In truth, however, Hillsborough County Public Schools has done a great job of reigning in its deficit spending during the same period. This fact is all the more amazing when one considers the significance of this in light of continually declining purchasing power when dollars are adjusted for inflation. Many citizens of the county, for instance, may not realize that there has been a sharp reduction in “PECO” funding (Public Education Capital Outlay, the source that pays for installation and maintenance of HVAC systems, building and repairing schools, upgrading technology, etc) for several reasons:
1. At the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the Florida Legislature–the governing body that effectively caps the tax rates that can be applied by school boards–reduced the millage rate from 2.0 to 1.5. Despite the economy recovering and now thriving, Tallahassee has never raised the millage rate back to pre-recession levels.
2. In addition to the millage rate never being restored, outgoing Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, famously quipped “Hell, no” in 2017 when asked if the Legislature would leave tax rates alone and allow rising property values to raise additional funds for education. Despite the Senate being okay with such a sensible compromise, the Grover Norquist anti-tax zealots in the House held firm and rolled back the rates even more.
3. Much of the revenue generated for PECO comes in the form of utilities taxes, including landline telephones, which hardly exist outside of businesses any longer. Therefore, a lot less money is going into those particular coffers at the state level.
Put this all together and what we get is a perfect fiscal storm that looks like this chart.
While no one ever likes paying taxes, I would argue that there is a cost of paying too little. Having lived in Florida for just over 20 years now, I have watched our schools deteriorate and our roads fall apart while simutaneously becoming more clogged thanks to two decades of rampant, unchecked sprawl that has had little oversight and even less funding devoted to overcoming these challenges. I would highly encourage anyone who is reading this and lives in Hillsborough County to share this information with friends/family and vote for both of these referenda so that our citizens no longer have to live with the disastrous decisions being made by the Florida Legislature.
Furthermore, especially when it comes to the school district referendum in particular, please bear the following in mind: 1) the referendum can only be used for capital expenses; 2) there will be an oversight committee comprised of six citizens who have no connection to the district and will oversee how the money is spent on projects; 3) for the average Hillsborough citizen, the additional tax will mean about 17 cents per day. Undoubtedly, there will be naysayers who still want to vote no for their own personal reasons regardless of these facts. To them I paraphrase Voltaire by saying we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Our students, our schools, and our future depend on it.
This week’s episode of the Teacher Voice podcast is the follow-up special edition featuring the other slate of officer candidates for leadership of the Florida Education Association. Joanne McCall, Lawrence “Lare” Allen, and Luke Flynt are running for President, Vice President, and Secretary-Treasurer respectively. As with the previous podcast, the candidates share their histories and why they are running, their vision for the future of FEA, as well as why teachers and ESPs should join their locals. Please listen and share with others, especially those who will be delegates at the FEA DA next month.
If you’d like to learn more about Joanne, Lare, and Luke, you can visit their website, and follow/interact with Joanne (@joannefea), Lare (@LareAllen83), and Luke (@laflynt) on Twitter.
About a week ago, ABC Action News caught up with the Florida Department of Education’s Commissioner, Pam Stewart. The reporter in the video had been trying to get an official comment regarding the on-going saga of teachers who are losing their jobs due to not being able to pass one of Florida’s teacher certification exams.
Bear in mind, however, that many of these teachers have already demonstrated their skills in the field, had been rated “Effective” or better, had developed a rapport with the students they serve…yet were let go nonetheless.
This truly is “must see television”:
To provide some context, ABC Action News has been investigating this issue for about a year and a half, starting in March 2017. They had updates to this story in July of that same year, May 2018, again this past July, and culminating in this report from last week.
The shortest version possible of what has happened is this: in 2015 Pearson debuted new tests and pass rates quickly plummeted. Many teachers discuss their struggles with the mathematics portion of the General Knowledge Test, despite the majority of these teachers not even teaching math. Ever.
The one year I worked as a new teacher mentor coincided with the new, more challenging tests, and it was almost always the General Knowledge Test that was holding back first and second year teachers. One of my mentees, for instance, couldn’t pass the essay portion of the GK. She hailed from Puerto Rico, taught Spanish, was adored by her students, yet had to pass a meaningless portion of a test that had no real bearing on her ability to teach Spanish.
Compounding this problem is the statewide (national, really) teacher shortage. More and more “new” teachers are people who are making the transition to a new career, not a young person entering the profession from college. If someone hasn’t used their math skills in 10 or more years, they will have eroded significantly.
And, again, if a person is hired to be an art (or any subject not related to math) teacher, should she need to be able to do the following?
In the midst of a teacher shortage crisis, one would hope that the state would offer some temporary reprieve on some of the testing requirements, especially the General Knowledge Test that seems to be the biggest barrier to staying in the profession. What’s more curious is that Florida does this to no other profession. No one who is going to take the bar exam to be a lawyer has to also take this test. It seems logical that if a person can earn an undergraduate degree such as a B.A. or B.S., s/he has the basic skills necessary to work in any professional domain.
Eliminating the GK test would not necessarily mean it is easier to become a teacher. A person still would have to pass the Florida Teacher Certification Examination and a Subject Area exam, and rightly so. A candidate should be able to know and understand the laws that govern the profession, the ethical obligations they hold as teachers, and demonstrate mastery in the content the educator will teach to students.
But having to prove you went to college 10 or 20 years after the fact by taking and passing the “General Knowledge” test? Absurd.
(Sweet Incredible Hulk GIF that wouldn’t embed. You know you want to click the link.)
Other questions arise with this approach as well:
When these teachers who have already been deemed effective during their first few years lose their jobs, who replaces them? Who will connect with those students? A long-term substitute? Pam Stewart realizes that teachers aren’t growing on trees, right?
Why do only traditional public school teachers have to pass all these tests to earn their certification? Charters and private schools can hire people with no credentials, yet the FLDOE will kick good people to the curb because they have rusty math skills?
In the end, Commissioner Stewart’s horrible handling of this reporter is telling in three ways: 1) she’s hangry, and you wouldn’t like her when she’s hangry; 2) the FLDOE clearly does not want to discuss this issue, with her even going so far as to offer a deflective answer about turnaround schools; 3) she clearly has never, ever–not once–understood nor empathized with the plight of teachers and ESPs all across the Sunshine State who routinely sacrifice their lunch time for their students on an almost daily basis.
This edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features three guests that comprise one of the election tickets running to become the leaders of the Florida Education Association. Fed Ingram, Andrew Spar, and Carole Gauronskas are running to be the President, Vice President, and Secretary-Treasurer respectively. We sat down earlier this summer at the AFT Convention for them to share why they are running, their vision for the future of the FEA, and why teachers and ESPs should join their local unions. Please listen and share with others, especially those who will be delegates at the FEA DA next month.
As the picture above states, Bill is the right person at the right time. He narrowly lost to Susan Valdes in 2016, and he is the best candidate in the race due to his wide and varied background. First he served our country in the United States Air Force, then he served Hillsborough County, intially as a teacher, then school site administrator, and finished his career at the district level as a general director. After serving Hillsborough for over 40 years, he is asking the voters of District 1 to help him help us all one more time by coming back and serving on our local school board.
First and foremost, there is an HCPS district policy that prohibits anyone employed by the district to campaign on a school site. While technically Mr. Cona does not work for the district, the same rule applies to sitting school board members as well. If elected officials are expected to be exemplars, shouldn’t the candidates also adhere to the same policies put in place by the governing body of which they are campaigning to join? It only seems logical. Bill has adhered to these policies in good faith, yet the Cona campaign persisted in sending emails at least three times.
Second, and far more problematic, is the statement issued by the Cona campaign:
The very first line in the statement is misleading at best and an outright lie at worst, and here’s why: Enjoli White, the candidate liaison for Craig Latimer’s office at the Supervisor of Elections, said that voter email addresses are primarily collected when voters register to vote by mail, and even then it is optional to provide an email address. Two of the teachers, Laurie Rodriguez and Aron Zions, have registered to vote by mail yet never provided an email address at all, let alone a school district email address.
And LoraJane Riedas? She’s never even registered to vote by mail, making it impossible for the Cona campaign to have obtained the emails in this way.
The second half of the statement is true. There were a total of 74 SDHC email addresses listed among the 212,426 voters; expressed as a percentage of all possible email addresses the Cona campaign could have sent direct solicitations to, it is 0.00000348%.*
Questions immediately come to mind:
How could these teachers and numerous others have received these emails when such a minuscule percentage of all voters even used their work email addresses?
And if his campaign did not get these email addresses from the Supervisor of Elections list, where did they come from and how did the campaign get them?
Something about this doesn’t add up at all.
Leaving aside the issue about the possible illegality of this situation and focusing on the ethical implications should leave every District 1 voter wondering about Mr. Cona:
If his campaign is willing to issue patently false statements, what else is next?
Should voters be concerned about his connections to the construction industry when we all know massive growth is coming to Hillsborough County? His candidate finance search reveals money coming from construction company CEOs all over the state of Florida, not simply here in the Tampa Bay region. Susan Valdes willingly bent the rules by breaking the cone of silence to help her political donors, so is it possible that Steve Cona might be tempted to do the same? One would hope not.
The last thing District 1 voters and all of Hillsborough County needs is another unethical elected official.
Bill Person, on the other hand, is the candidate who wants to truly do business in the sunshine. He is the one who brought many of the corruption charges against Susan Valdes to light, and every citizen in Hillsborough County should be grateful that he did. Bill is a stand-up guy who will always be honest with his constituents and fellow board members, and we need that now more than ever.
If you are a voter who lives in House District 62 and haven’t voted yet, you need to vote for Mike Alvarez. He is the clear choice who brings a unique perspective as a former U.S. Marine and current small business owner. If you haven’t already heard from the man himself, he was on the Teacher Voice podcast earlier this summer, which you can listen to here.
You may have received one of these political ads in the mail for Susan Valdes in the last few days, and I’d like to call every voter’s attention to the least suspect part of the mailer itself: who sent it.
Rather than accept donations directly from the giant for-profit management companies such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, Charter School Associates, etc, Valdes is now having her mailers paid for by a PAC called “Florida Federation for Children”. If it sounds familiar, it’s probably because of “American Federation for Children”, the organization started and promoted by none other than Betsy DeVos.
And if any voter wants to see how heavily funded this group is by Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children PAC or numerous for-profit charter management companies, all he or she has to do is look at the campaign contribution list. All told, between DeVos, Academica, Charter Schools USA, and Charter School Associates, this adds up to over 2.3 MILLION DOLLARS.
That sure does buy a lot of influence, and the last thing any constituent needs is another legislator being led around by special interest lobbyists.
The choice is clear for any voter in House District 62: Mike Alvarez is the candidate voters want to serve the interests of the people of his district, Hillsborough County, and all of Florida. Susan Valdes, on the other hand, wants to help faceless corporate profiteers who are trying to privatize public education to pad their bottom lines with public tax dollars. She is a disgrace to public education advocates locally and across the Sunshine State, and the Tampa Bay Times erred greatly when they endorsed this charlatan (UPDATE! Janet Cruz has rescinded her endorsement of Valdes)
But it’s not too late. If you live in House District 62 and haven’t voted yet, vote for Mike Alvarez! And even if you don’t live in the district but know others who do, please share this important and critical information with them, their family members and friends.
P.S. – And if any voter needs one final reason as to why Susan Valdes does NOT deserve his/her vote, never forget Valdes’ “foolishness” when she openly mocked teachers and ESPs who poured their hearts out to the HCPS School Board. If she is so openly hostile to the people who work with our children every day, imagine how dismissive and disrespectful she will be to the constituents of HD62.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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