Take a moment and close your eyes. Can you visualize it? This is what Tallahassee–or any place in Florida–could look like with a massive grassroots uprising. The pictures above are of Phoenix when the Arizona Educators United #RedForEd movement stormed the capital, and this could be what Tallahassee looks like on the first day of the legislative session.

But how did we get here? And why the heck has it taken so long? Here’s a brief timeline:

Spring of 2018, numerous states begin to rebel against the status quo: ridiculously paltry funding, especially in southern states, has negatively impacted everything in education, from the resources available to provide supports and services to students, to the decline in meaningful raises due to little flexible funding being eaten up by rising costs for healthcare or categoricals.

During the midst of this uprising (and many, many times before), I started to publicly question why yet again the FEA was content to sit back and do nothing in the wake of unprecedented activism exploding all over the country: West Virginia began in late February and ran through March, and Arizona started organizing around that time and erupted in late April / early May. Although controversial when written, there were numerous comments by non-union members and frustrated rank and file members who believed back then that the time was upon Florida.

4/8/18 – A Question for Florida’s Teachers Unions: Why Can’t We Do More?

Seeing how effective these movements were (others happened in numerous other states, often popping up one after the other in OK, KY, CO, etc), the next post about the topic came about a month later. It outlined two possibilities for huge days of action that could be coordinated by FEA: 9/17/18, U.S. Constitution Day, which was proposed by retired teacher advocate extraordinaire, Donna Yates Mace, and 1/21/19, which was MLK Day this year and would have made for a powerful statement bringing everyone together to benefit all students and educators.

5/12/18 – Next Steps: Rally in Tally

After these two posts, I finally had the opportunity to ask the former president of the FEA, Joanne McCall, about the organization’s strategy to organize all educators across the state during her first podcast appearance. Was a rally in Tally in order? Nope. Just more hashtags and a “Me Plus Three” campaign to bring family and friends to the polls. Listen here if so inclined:

5/19/18 – Teacher Voice – Episode 21 (Joanne McCall)

Considering nothing ever came of these posts or discussions, I was encouraged by the fact that it was an election year for the FEA as well. Fed, Andrew, and Carole won convincingly, and I was hopeful that the FEA would take a new direction. Shortly after their win, I approached Fed and Andrew on the final morning of the Delegate Assembly and shared the idea of a massive rally in Tally, expressing my dismay that nothing had happened under the previous leadership team. I sent them my post via a group text and assumed this was something that could easily be accomplished in 3 months; after all, the students of the MSD/Parkland tragedy organized a massive movement in about 6 weeks.

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Screenshot of the text/link I sent to Fed, Andrew and Carole

Obviously, nothing happened…

2/4/19 – Reconstruct-ED: A Message to Governor DeSantis, a wildly successful non-partisan, parent-led Facebook group quickly gathers thousands of members and solicits input from said members. Five key demands are agreed upon by an incredibly diverse group including educators, parents, former students, and retirees, demonstrating the need for a massive overhaul to public education. These five points are ones no one would disagree with: 1) better funding/educator pay; 2) less testing for our students; 3) a return to true local control so school boards can do what is best for their constituents; 4) legislators who actually listen to constituent concerns; 5) no more train bills.

Part of this grassroots push was to also have a coordinated day of action on 1/14/20, the first day of the new legislative session. Marches were being set up in some counties, and in May of 2019 the Reconstruct-ED leadership even staged a small march with several hundred people in Martin County.

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Martin County March led by Reconstruct-ED

As momentum started to build within this network (now 9100+ strong), more and more people began talking about 1/14/20 as the day of action, including FEA leadership. Clearly a grassroots movement that included all stakeholders regardless of political leanings was just what the Sunshine State needed to raise the awareness of the issues we still face, but until we dominated the media and rose from the bottom of the polls we would get no real traction.

July 2019 – After attending the FLBOE meeting with a few education advocates at Polk State (7/17), I was upset by the fact that the FEA continued to do nothing to mobilize or organize its members. Stephanie Yocum, a brand new president of her local in Polk, was there in addition to a few more members, but it seemed as if a huge opportunity had been squandered, which then prompted this email to FEA leadership (7/25).

FEA Open Letter 1

August 2019 – At my penultimate executive board meeting for HCTA, our president informs us that the FEA day of action has been planned for 1/13/20, which prompted me to whip my head to the left and blurt out “WHAT?!”, to which he replied with, “yeah, they said you might not be too happy about it.” I was floored. Not only had I personally been told 1/14/20, it had been the original grassroots date for many months and it seemed as if they were trying to usurp the burgeoning movement.

I also continued to post things like this on Facebook (8/3/19):

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10/15/19 – The week of the FEA DA I decided to write this open letter to FEA leadership as well as the presidents of all locals across the state. Some presidents from small or medium locals wrote back to me, also dismayed by the change in the date. All I asked is that the process be democratic and to let the gathered body actually vote on the day, but my letter may have precluded them doing just that, as a new business item was quickly introduced and its sole purpose was to confirm the date of 1/13/20.

FEA Open Letter 2

And here we are! In the midst of the confusion surrounding two dates, people keep asking which date. My answer? Why not both? Plans have already been laid for my wife and I to be in Tallahassee both days along with some friends, but I will still continue to advocate for 1/14/20 because there is so much more symbolism surrounding that day. The ceremony and pageantry of the State of the State and everything else that goes along with it is exactly needs to be disrupted, but that only happens on 1/14/20. Hopefully the FEA-led event on 1/13/20 will be a smashing success that helps build momentum, but considering how it will be seen as partisan (just ask Governor DeSantis who already made now infamous remarks) my fears from the second open letter are already starting to be realized…

Now the choice is yours. Even if you cannot make it to Tallahassee or other demonstrations that will hopefully be organized for 1/14/20, if enough of us take a personal day on 1/14/20 districts may have no other choice than to shut down due to a lack of subs or personnel needed to run the schools for the day. Now THAT would be a powerful message sent to Governor DeSantis, Commissioner Corcoran, and the Florida Legislature.

But make no mistake…it will take nearly “everyone” for this to work.

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What Every Florida Legislator Should Feel For Letting It Get This Bad…

Dear Fellow Floridian:

Click Play.

Like what you heard? Sharing is caring 😉

Have an awesome weekend, everyone!

*Correction* – in 2014 there were three A-rated districts (not four); the 800% increase has resulted in 24 “A-rated” districts currently in 2019.

P.S. – Don’t forger to download, display and share your #InfographicOfShame!4544F7E3-3701-41B7-A509-9F2CD4445295

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Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican Gubenatorial Candidate

Although I already wrote a piece titled “All I Want for Midterms” that encourages others to vote for Andrew Gillum as a check against one-party rule, I read this comment on Facebook and thought it is an excellent overview of what has happened to public education during the last 20 years of GOP rule. Therefore, if you are a teacher who has already voted for Ron DeSantis or, more importantly, if you are about to vote for him on Tuesday, fellow teacher Kim Cook would like you to remember the following:

For those of you who are saying you won’t vote for Gillum, please consider the following:

The Florida legislature and governor’s office has been Republican for 20+ years. In that 20 years, we have seen nothing but bill after bill with the sole intent of destroying public education. The vast majority of those bills have been signed into law by the governor. Here is a review of the legislation:

1. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush introduced the FCAT in order to track student “progress” ignoring the fact teachers are entirely capable of assessing their own students.

2. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush then started using FCAT results to grade schools, falsely equating low socioeconomic schools with “bad teaching.”

3. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush linked passing the third grade FCAT with retention and the 10th grade FCAT with high school graduation–despite research that clearly demonstrated this would be detrimental to students and communities.

4. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush linked school grades to money–awarding “A” schools with more money and “F” schools with less.

5. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott connected student test scores to teacher evaluations, otherwise known as VAM.

6. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott imposed a tax on educators by requiring them to contribute 3% of their salary to their pensions; however, that 3% goes into the general fund, NOT the pension.

7. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott changed the pension plan by requiring new hires to choose between the defined benefit pension and the 401k plan within the first nine months of their careers. Any educator who doesn’t choose by the required date automatically goes into the 401k plan, undermining the financial health of the defined benefit pension.

8. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed a law that decertifies any teacher union that falls under 50% membership, making that district’s contract and salary schedule null and void. Unions for first responders were exempt from the law (they are mostly men who vote Republican after all).

9. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed legislation creating the “Best and Brightest” program. B&B bypasses providing the money to districts so that it can be put into salary schedules. The B&B money is considered a bonus, so it doesn’t count towards teachers’ pensions. The money also cannot go to “non-instructional personnel”–educators like media specialists (I teach ALL day every day, but nope, I’m not eligible), guidance counselors, deans, etc.

10. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed legislation that allows voucher schools; thus, tax dollars go to private, often religious, schools, that do not have the same accountability measures as public schools. They have expanded the program just about every legislative session.

11. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott have created laws to turn over public schools to for-profit charters. We have an entire district in Florida that is now a “charter” district.

12. Many Republican members of our legislature own or have a vested interest in charter or voucher schools and testing companies, yet they pass legislation that pads their wallets.

13. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed legislation that requires school districts to harden schools, yet didn’t fully fund the program. They also allow “non-teaching personnel” like me, the school librarian, to carry guns.

14. The Florida legislature fully intends to continue to destroy our pension bit by bit. My state senator, Keith Perry, admitted this. He told us that the state had no business running a pension program.

15. From Ceresta Smith: The Republican legislature and Rick Scott made Bright Futures Scholarships harder for non-whites to receive as they upped the bar on standardized tests, which provide advantage based on class and race.

16. The Florida legislature and Rick Scott took professional service contracts (sometimes referred to as “tenure”) away from teachers hired after July 1, 2008.

Most likely, our legislature will continue to be Republican dominated. If we don’t have a Democratic governor to veto the legislation that will continue to destroy public schools, destroy our salaries, and decimate our pension, we are sunk. I don’t know about you, but I’m counting on my pension in retirement. I don’t know what we’ll do if it’s not there, or if the state tries to pay us off with a lump sum, as other states have done.

If all Gillum does is veto destructive legislation, he’s still better than having DeSantis who will rubber stamp every horrible anti-public education bill the legislature sends him.

Thank you for reading. Please be sure to share with other teachers who still have not voted, and encourage them to vote for Andrew Gillum, even if only for pragmatic reasons. As noted in my own piece, although he would not have been my first choice, I still supported him because one party rule never works in the long run. We must bring some semblance of balance back to Tallahassee, and we can start doing so by electing a Democratic governor who will need to seek common ground and compromise with our GOP-led Florida Legislature.

Fentrice Driskell
Fentrice Driskell, Democratic Candidate for House District 63

This edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features Fentrice Driskell, a Harvard and Georgetown Law School graduate, partner at Carton Fields law firm in Tampa, and the Democratic candidate for House District 63.

Although she always knew that running for public office would be in her future, she did not realize she would run so soon. We discuss her impressive resume, why she’s running, and what she would like to do in Tallahassee. Please listen and share with others, especially voters in HD63.

Want to learn more about Fentrice? You can check out her amazingly alliterative website, Fentrice For Florida, of find her on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

Debbie Katt
Debbie Katt (far right), Democratic Candidate for House District 57

The latest edition of the Teacher Voice podcast turns away from school board races and back toward the state level, featuring Debbie Katt, a software engineer from the Valrico area who is campaigning for the HD57 seat vacated by Jake Raburn-R.

Among the priorities Debbie would like to address in Tallahassee, public education funding is the top of her list. We also discuss her vision for sensible gun control; a regional approach to investment in the Tampa Bay area’s transportation infrastructure; how funding for the arts has been decimated in recent years, and the negative financial impact that brings to other local businesses. Please listen and share with others, especially voters in House District 57.

As we discussed during the podcast, if you’d like to learn more about Debbie or her platform you can visit her campaign website. Debbie is also on Facebook and Twitter if you’d like to connect with her on social media.

Thanks again for listening and supporting the Teacher Voice podcast, everyone!

P.S. – Sorry for the background noise in the first half. Apparently librarians get real rowdy once they go on break in the staff lounge…but I guess that’s to be expected after being quiet all day!

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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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Phil Hornback, Democratic Candidate for HD 58

This week’s episode of Teacher Voice podcast features Phil Hornback, a small business owner, former bricklayer, and former public school science teacher. Phil is a hard working guy who wants to bring a common sense approach to Tallahassee by standing for the constituents of the community rather than the special interests who dominate our state’s legislative sessions.

Although our conversation focuses mainly on public education, Phil also discusses his personal history, why he’s running, as well as the other important ideas for his campaign. Please listen and share this episode, especially with those who live in House District 58.

If you’d like to learn more about Phil Hornback and his campaign, check out his website here, you can Like/Follow his Facebook page, or you can also follow him on Twitter.

Thanks for listening and have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

P.S. – This is Phil speaking at the HCPS school board meeting on June 5th about for-profit managed charter schools, a topic that we discuss during the podcast itself.

PhilFor58

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Nearly six months to the day after calling for Susan Valdes’ resignation due to her “foolishness” comment, the District 1 member of the HCPS school board has officially resigned to run for the Florida Legislature in House District 62.

Better late than never.

The following is an open letter to the constituents of House District 62 as well as a political playbook for her primary campaign opponents.

As noted previously in podcasts and other posts, Susan Valdes’ commitment to the Hispanic community specifically (and all minorities generally) is both noteworthy and laudable. No one can deny she has advocated for these students during her time on the board.

But numerous problems remain and all voters should beware her motivations, especially in light of her alleged “three P’s” comment and other troubling revelations from the last two years since she won re-election in 2016.

Three Ps

If I were a campaign manager for Valdes’ opponents, here are several points I would address every time when speaking to the constituents of House District 62 so that every voter knows exactly who Susan Valdes is and what she stands for:

  1. Campaign Contributions from For-Profit Charter Management Companies

Public Education is a tried and true campaign platform for any and all Democrat candidates and, typically, this party is the only one that has cried foul against the taxpayer fraud being committed by these for-profit charter management companies (learn more here). In essence, these companies establish “non-profit” boards to comply with the law, and these boards turn around and hire the company for management, back office services, pay them rental/lease agreements above and beyond market value, etc. Nearly half of the money doesn’t even get to the kids in the classrooms; instead, it goes to pad the profit lines of companies such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, and Charter School Associates.

All three of these companies gave handsomely to Susan Valdes during the 2016 election cycle and should call into question her advocacy for public education. While most Democrats are trying to defend it, she is silently cheering on its demise by taking money from privatizing profiteers.

2. Ethics Investigations

It’s no secret that Member Valdes has abused her power while on the school board, which led to the state of Florida opening up separate ethics investigations against her. Her family received free day care even though she was never technically an employee; it would appear she helped her friend and campaign manager get a job in the county for which she had no qualifications; she interfered with the open bidding process during the “cone of silence” to ensure that a local company–whose CEO donated heavily to Valdes’ re-election bid–had a second chance to change their pricing, resulting in a contract that still cost taxpayers $50,000 more than it could have had the district gone with the original bid winner, Arey Jones.

Now that she has resigned, however, those ethics investigations cease. But that doesn’t change the fact that there was enough evidence to merit the investigations by the state in the first place, and any primary opponent would be wise to constantly mention these investigations and not let her off the hook for her past transgressions.

3. Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Valdes’ Excessive Travel

As the linked editorial above notes, this has been a chronic problem since Susan Valdes was elected in 2004. In her first term she spent over $50,000 and, despite her pledge to be more mindful of it in the future, she never quit. She infamously made news again in 2016 when she spent over $14,000 from May of 2015 to May of 2016, which was more than the remaining six board members combined. This also coincided with the first time I spoke at an HCPS school board meeting, mainly because I was so distraught over her reckless use of taxpayer dollars at a time when the district was trying to shore up its reserves by cutting spending.

4. Susan Valdes – Career Politician

For the last fourteen years, Susan Valdes has served as a school board member for Hillsborough County Public Schools. This year, the Florida Legislature tried to pass legislation to enforce term limits on school board members, an effort that ultimately never passed yet was bundled into Amendment 8 by the Constitution Revision Commission (please vote NO on 8!). This amendment, however, also includes a provision that will allow for-profit charters to circumvent local school boards altogether, so despite its attempt to limit school board members to two consecutive terms–something many people across the Sunshine State want–it comes at too steep a cost to public education.

Now she wants to jump ship and try to “serve the people” (i.e. herself and her campaign contributors) of House District 62. The voters of this district should fully repudiate her and end her career in politics now before she wreaks more havoc on Hillsborough County. If you are a resident of District 62, please vote for one of her primary opponents; if you know someone who lives in 62, please share this post / information with that person.

Please vote in this critical midterm primary election.

Just vote for anyone other than Susan Valdes.