Today is the tenth anniversary of my first foray into education advocacy. At the time I wondered if I was a teacher or a scapegoat because, in the midst of the Great Recession, it seemed as if educators were getting the blame for every single thing. Against this backdrop, the first merit pay/accountabaloney bill, SB6, was moving through the legislature and during lunch I scrawled these words on an Office Depot memo pad out of frustration the very same day I had proctored the FCAT.
Now that we stand on the precipice of another economic recession, and with COVID-19 forcing all of us online in a grand experiment that may fundamentally disrupt our education model forever, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds. As always, I am ever the optimist and a curious lifelong learner who sees a number of positive possibilities for what this pandemic can teach us all–most critically, the need for all stakeholders to lean on one another to help all of Florida’s children succeed.
The complete op-ed text is below. I wrote it as a “letter to the editor” and had no idea it would make the front page of the Opinion section in the Sunday edition of the now defunct Tampa Tribune. Only when my phone started ringing that morning did I realize it had been published. The picture above is the lone copy I saved and now hangs in 824.
Am I a teacher or a scapegoat?
I’ve been wondering about that a great deal lately. It seems that every society has them, usually commencing with the recognition of some societal ill.
In the past decade, that malady has become education–in particular, teachers. Apparently, we’re solely to blame.
The phrases “professional development,” “teacher effectiveness” and “teacher accountability” are harped on by pundits and politicians outside the profession.
In what other public-servant sector do we demand such accountability? Do we blame police officers for arriving at the scene of a crime too late? A firefighter for not saving a home from the flames?
Certainly, these public servants do their best. We don’t single them out as the lone variable when life goes awry.
Or how about accountability for our politicians who kowtow not to the demands of their constituents but to the dollars of lobbyists and special interests who truly run this “democracy”?
State Senator John Thrasher, sponsor of Senate Bill 6, is seeking to pile even more accountability on our shoulders while basing our performance as teachers on nothing more than statistics. Well, I have an interesting statistic of my own: 1.7 percent. As individual teachers (speaking of high school and one 50 minute class period), our students spend 1.7 percent of their time with each of us in one calendar year. If one were to include only waking hours, the number becomes 2.6 percent.
Taken from a collective standpoint, students spend 14 percent of their time in one year with the classroom (again, the number rises to 18 percent if we consider sleep).
Whether it is crime, dropouts, graduation, FCAT, reading proficiency or any other rate or percentage being pinned on our profession, the truth is we take 100 percent of the blame though we comprise only 14 percent of each student’s time.
It is time for accountability to be spread out evenly.
As teachers, we cannot control the 86 percent of the time our students are not within our classrooms or any other of the variables (COVID-19?). Accountability should begin with the student and be buttressed by the parent. It should continue with the teachers, guidance counselors and administrators while in school.
In a perfect world, accountability should be part of a continuum — an unbroken chain in which we all play a part. It is foolish and delusional for politicians and parents to believe we are a panacea for these social ills.
Real progress will begin when our society stops blaming and starts helping. Only through cooperation of all parties involved in the academic progress will it be possible to right the ship of education in the United States.
Senate Bill 6 is progressing in the Senate. I am urging all of you who care enough about our educational system, our collective dignity as professional educators and, most importantly, our students, to engage in your civic duty by writing or calling your state legislators and voicing your concerns about the bill becoming law.
Not much has changed in the decade since this was written. Educators have been put through the ringer in any number of ways, and taking our learning online will be a challenge for many for various reasons. The most essential thing to put at the forefront of our minds during this crisis, however, is our shared humanity. We are all human beings facing an exigent and existential threat, and if we are going to help our children succeed it will require the “continuum” I mentioned above, even if it doesn’t happen in the traditional confines of a classroom.
Three weeks ago the Florida Legislature’s Office of the House Majority put out this video in an effort to combat the bad press it had been getting over the 47 cent increase to the BSA, or Base Student Allocation.
After my own rebuttal to this reprehensible attempt to characterize all education professionals as everyone’s favorite disheveled ingrate, Frank, Politifact Florida weighed in on the matter to state that the House Majority’s video about the #47centmyth (boy, I love it when Corcoran and Co. coin hashtags) is “mostly false.”
Let me save the reader a valuable 4 minutes and 27 seconds of life and sum it up: according to the Florida Legislature, the only number that matters is FEFP, which stands for Florida Education Finance Program. This is the number that we should all reference when talking about education spending so that we have a single measurement by which we can accurately discuss how much the Sunshine State spends “per-pupil.”
For the upcoming school year of 2018-19 that “per-pupil” number is $7,408.
As much as the GOP-led Florida Legislature wants to argue about what constitutes a fact, here are three numbers/facts that make it incredibly tough to argue against:
Yet here we are, 20 years later, and we still haven’t increased per-pupil funding by even $1,000 from two decades ago. And all of this transpired under the watchful eye of a GOP-led Florida Legislature and Governor’s mansion that has refused to keep up with rising costs, let alone make a meaningful investment in our children and their future.
Numbers don’t lie, people. Inflation happens. And when the Florida Legislature touts the FEFP per-pupil number as the only one that matters, it opens itself up to even more criticism precisely because costs have risen the last two decades the GOP has been in power, yet the purchasing power of that money has simultaneously declined.
Despite Governor Scott’s, House Speaker Corcoran’s, and Senate President Negron’s claims that this year’s per-pupil spending is “historic”, “unprecedented”, and “record-level”, $7,408 lags the national average by over $4,000 and, as previously demonstrated above, its own inflation-adjusted spending by over $2,500.
Oh, and here’s one more number/fun fact for our GOP legislators: in 1998 Florida was 27th in per-pupil spending, putting our state at roughly the national average back then (27th in the U.S.); now, in 2018, just about every measure shows that we rank in the bottom 10 percent (45th or lower) of the entire United States.
And until we vote these people out, they will continue to squeeze blood from a stone…
P.S. – Is this more “Corcoran fuzzy math”? Not sure where this inflated number comes from, but it shows up briefly on the side of the bus in the new video (almost like a subliminal message) and $7,408 is never mentioned.
What follows herein, then, is a direct rebuttal to many of the points addressed within the Speaker’s column. As an independent voter who has never had a party affiliation, I am one of many citizens who feels disenfranchised by a two-party system that has been largely hijacked by extremists on both sides of the aisle. The entire Sunshine State needs collaboration and compromise between its lawmakers; our citizens have received very little of either in the two decades I have lived in Florida, however, and this is especially true during the last two contentious legislative sessions overseen by Speaker Corcoran.
The Speaker’s column begins with a bombastic claim that Floridians will have the opportunity “to vote on the best slate of constitutional amendments ever.” Much of what follows from there is largely opinion with few facts to corroborate his assertions, so let’s examine his claims individually to see how they stack up against reality during Governor Scott’s tenure in office as well as Representative Corcoran’s time as Speaker of the House.
Speaker Corcoran initiates his column by proudly stating he and Governor Scott have cut taxes 80 times totaling over $10 billion dollars since 2010. As someone who is personally fiscally conservative, this would be welcome news if my perspective weren’t already tempered by the realization that all Floridians have an obligation to the future, which requires investment in public institutions and services, something our state cannot afford to do by constantly curtailing revenue streams for no other reason beyond pandering to an ultra-conservative political base.
All it will really take is the next economic recession–something that Speaker Corcoran surely knows is coming considering how much he touts his love of free markets as a panacea for every economic ill–and the boom and bust cycle will ensure that our consumption based revenue will collapse in on itself much like it did during the housing crisis a decade ago.
Instead, however, the Speaker is pushing for yet another homestead exemption that will further reduce revenue by $637 million dollars at a time when we desperately need funding for Medicare and Medicaid expansion, infrastructure, and public education. And what do Floridians stand to receive if this amendment passes? $250. Annually.
And while discussing per-pupil funding, let’s acknowledge how abysmal it has been for the last decade despite constant claims by Governor Scott, Speaker Corcoran, and Senate President Joe Negron that this year’s “record-level” $7,408 per-pupil amount is “unprecendented” and “historic”; adjusted for inflation, the $7,126 from 2007-2008 would need to be $8,415 to have the equivalent purchasing power, a fact anyone can check with the U.S. Department of Labor’s CPI Inflation Calculator. $8,415 is clearly far more than the $7,221 our schools received this past school year, meaning we are at least $1,200 behind and lag the national average by approximately $4,000.
At a bare minimum, the students, parents, and education professionals deserve a special session so that the Florida Legislature can actually provide the $400 million it pledged for school safety, rather than shuffle all the money around in the education budget and still claim to have increased funding. Far more importantly, it also begs the question of why education spending did not increase by $1.5 billion when the entire budget climbed by over $6 billion. Public education is already one quarter of the state’s budget after all; shouldn’t it deserve an equitable increase as a total proportion of the new budget?
At this point it is worth noting the about face of Speaker Corcoran, who, lest we all forget, was chief antagonist of Governor Scott for much of the 2017 legislative session, fuming over “corporate welfare” and wanting to eviscerate the funding of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, two of the governor’s beloved pet projects. This animosity evaporated almost immediately at the end of the session after a closed-door horse-dealing session that every public education advocate knows all too well.
After detailing how he–along with Governor Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga–appointed the 37 members of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commision, a group that has set out to attempt to install its politically conservative agenda into our state’s most precious civil document rather than listening to what the Sunshine State’s citizenry wants, Speaker Corcoran segues into hollow words about ending corruption in Tallahassee because of his “ethics reform package.”
For someone who constantly preens himself over his record on challenging special interests and ending “corporate welfare”–a point upon which he and I philosophically agree, interestingly enough–Speaker Corcoran’s words run diametrically opposed to his actions when it serves his own interests and agenda.
Speaker Corcoran also goes on to boast of his and Governor Scott’s education priorities, noting–quite incorrectly, one might add–that “Florida is one of the only states in the nation to significantly improve math and reading scores.” He is referring to the NAEP, which is small sampling of random students and schools that deals with proficiency not growth. Truth be told, all the NAEP report demonstrates is that some random students did better than other random students from several years ago.
It is noteworthy, however, that Polk School Board member, Billy Townsend, keeps pointing toward an exhaustive report done by Stanford University that clearly tracks all students across multiple grades to build a robust picture of student growth (or lack thereof) on standardized tests, which, as anyone in public education knows, is the only metric deemed worthy of consideration by the Florida Legislature. This report, oddly enough, has been routinely ignored by every single person in Tallahassee. Why? This map speaks for the entire study:
With regard to the school board term limit proposal in Amendment 8, Speaker Corcoran neglects to mention that this is one of the “bundled” amendments that will also establish a state governed charter school authorization board that can circumvent the power of our own locally elected officials in addition to establishing a parallel “public” school system that will not answer to local school boards, which is only another ploy to redirect precious, scant taxpayer dollars to entities that have little oversight or accountability.
Finally, as an insult to all Social Studies teachers across the entire Sunshine State, Speaker Corcoran tells us that the Florida Legislature and the CRC have set out to enshrine civics education in our Constitution in an effort to ensure “a student should not be able to graduate without understanding what makes America great. Our founding documents and the values of our free society should not just be taught, but understood by every student who comes out of a Florida school.” This is already happening here in Hillsborough where Civics in a mandatory course that all students take in 7th grade, and undoubtedly everywhere else throughout the state. How else could Parkland students so quickly organize the “March For Our Lives” events and eloquently share their views if we had no robust civics education in Florida schools?
At the end of his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Richard Corcoran has clearly failed at what he set out to do when he took the gavel and stated he would disrupt the status quo. What he failed to realize was the paradoxical nature of his quest that did not acknowledge a single fact of paramount importance:
That Speaker Corcoran–and by extension the entire ideologically-driven, GOP-dominated Florida Legislature of the last two decades–is the status quo.
The simple truth is we can and must do more, and we should do so from now until the coming elections in November. There are fewer than 200 days left until the election, and we should use every spare moment to continue to generate momentum and share our message about the very real plight of public education here in Florida.
The first action we can take is continue to pressure Governor Scott and the Florida Legislature to return for a special session and make a proper investment in our students and their future. At a bare minimum, our elected officials should commit to providing the $400 million that they pledged for school safety and security measures, which ate up all but 47 cents of the roughly $100 increase in per-pupil spending (and that still lags total inflation adjusted spending from a decade ago by nearly $1500).
So how can advocates help make that happen? The FEA just launched a petition that is a snap to sign and share, and it takes less than 30 seconds to do both. Here’s the link to the petition.
In the previous post I also envisioned a “walk-in” happening here in Hillsborough at a minimum, and in all 67 school districts across the Sunshine State if the idea had reached critical mass. For reasons that are too long to enumerate, the idea didn’t get traction, but I think we can do something much simpler and still be highly successful:
Let’s get everyone to wear RED from May 7th through the 11th to coincide with National Teacher Appreciation Week. And by everyone, I mean every single education professional, administrator, guidance counselor, student, parent, community activist…essentially anyone who cares about our students and their future.
Why will this be so powerful? 1) It’s easy; 2) it will send a strong message if we have thousands upon thousands of people doing this; 3) it will be a conversation starter and a chance for every single person working in education to help share his or her story and the current plight of public education here in Florida. As FEA president Joanne McCall said recently, the only way we can change this is at the ballot box, and what better way to continue to gain momentum than sharing our platform by all stakeholders banding together and using social media to spread awareness with the already ubiquitous hashtag #REDforED.
As noted previously, the time for action is now. We must use this week to stand together in solidarity with teachers who have protested or are protesting currently. As this PBS article states, the majority of people in the United States support raises for teachers (although I think the more important point is raising per-pupil spending overall). Even though we can’t go on strike in Florida, if we get the backing of parents and other concerned community members and all take action together it will send a strong message that we intend to change things for the better.
Please share this post and idea with others starting today. National Teacher Appreciation Week is still nearly two weeks away, which gives us plenty of time to organize this simple action. And if we’re lucky, we can gain enough traction to not only make it #REDforED week here in Florida, but across the entire U.S. as well.
This guest post was written by Michelle Hamlyn, a fellow teacher here in Hillsborough County Public Schools and member of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
In the past, I’ve been heartbroken at the lives lost, the upheaval after, the despair of the families. This time I’m angry.
I’m angry that mass shootings keep happening in one of the richest, most civilized countries in the world. A country that should be able to figure this out.
I’m angry that schools need to be secured. How do you secure a playground, a PE field, a campus with multiple buildings? And do we want our schools to look like fortresses and prisons?
I’m angry that legislators are bought by special interest groups, leaving rational conversation and problem-solving in the dust. I’m angry that any conversation about gun control results in “You can’t take my guns.” I don’t want your damn guns. I want to have a conversation where you and I can find a solution to the current madness. But that would require us to both come from a stand of compassion and understanding, not defensiveness and posturing.
I’m angry that those same legislators have decimated mental health programs, even though the number of mentally ill people hasn’t diminished. I’m angry that the NRA doesn’t include lobbying for better mental health programs while they’re lobbying for gun rights. I’m angry that time and again, the controls in place have “missed something” about the shooter, thus rendering the controls pointless and dangerous. I’m angry that the government continues to tell us how safe we are, when anyone can see that we’re not.
I’m angry that legislators have also decimated public education and currently see it as a money-maker for billionaires. I’m angry that those decisions have led to public school policies that are conducive to school shootings, like not having enough mental health professionals on hand to adequately deal with students’ issues in a timely, meaningful manner. And stressing testing so much that students actually believe the test defines them. Which makes them even more stressed and more likely to lash out at others.
I’m angry that everyone thinks the solution to this is having more school resource officers. Or, even worse, in arming teachers, a ghastly idea that would probably result in so much more harm than good. Or that it’s somehow a child’s responsibility to “See something. Say something.” I’m angry that in districts across the country, there are teachers who have done just that and it has resulted in nothing being done.
I’m angry that districts are more concerned with their public images than with what’s really best for students. I’m angry that in some schools, teachers are told not to write referrals for bad behavior or to pass students who haven’t done any work just so the district can tout its data.
I’m angry that district spokespeople are busy reassuring parents their children are safe, when I know they’re not. How could they be if students keep getting shot at school?
I’m angry that helicopter and bulldozer parents coddle and enable their children to the degree they don’t understand right from wrong, or that actions have consequences, or that dealing with negative emotions is a part of life, thereby creating a child crippled by fear and anxiety, with no coping skills to deal with the reality of life. And then expect schools to fix it.
I’m angry that every time I try to get people to listen to all these things, I’m told I’m being too negative, that I’m on my soapbox again, that my passion for my students is really an excuse for my own unwillingness to change. I’m angry that I’m not looked at as an authority on the reality of today’s public schools. I’m angry that the people who are in charge never invite me or any other teacher to the table.
I’m angry that in addition to the never-ending responsibilities foisted upon teachers, one of those responsibilities includes keeping students safe in conditions I have no control over and in which I’m a hero if I die while saving students. It seems a lot to ask or expect. I became a teacher, not a soldier or a police officer or a firefighter.
Mostly, though, I’m angry that a human being decided to kill other human beings.
I’m angry that students who may have changed the world will never have that opportunity.
I’m angry that school personnel had to choose to irrevocably harm their own families to try and save other families.
I’m angry that families are broken and battered, and will never feel whole again.
And I’m angry that my students have to live in this world.
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