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Florida teachers just took another one on the chin from the Florida Legislature

Remember the tail end of last year when Rep. Chris Latvala, the chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee, went on record stating, “I don’t anticipate the type of bills that will dramatically change the education system, as we’ve done the past few years”?

He couldn’t have been more dead wrong.

SB7070, introduced just days after session began, sailed through the process and was recently touted as a crowning legislative achievement by Governor Ron DeSantis‘ office. Setting aside the fuzzy math being used by our legislators that was recently covered in the Florida Phoenix, the legislation wrought numerous changes that only minority special interests and lobbyists wanted to see pass.

Whether it’s arming teachers, using the public’s money to provide private school vouchers to religious schools, subverting the will of local voters, or just flat out ignoring the wishes of Florida’s majority, the Florida Legislature did what it does best–pass legislation no one wants or is asking for.

Destroyed
YAY! We finally passed completely unconstitutional legislation to ensure that convicts and crackheads can teach kids about how dinosaurs were our pets 5000 years ago!

Instead, teachers all across Florida got a legislative session that will only exacerbate the current teacher shortage and make everything much worse for the tens of thousands of educators all across the state, let alone the millions of students who will be impacted by these disastrous decisions.

Despite the return of phrases such as “historic funding increases” in the news and on the DeSantis press release, the truth is that even with this new FEFP total that is close to $7700, it would still be nearly $1000 shy of an inflation adjusted $7126 per-pupil amount from more than a decade ago, something that has been discussed at length here and elsewhere.

But guess what? Costs have risen and the increases will barely cover expenses.

There’s a reason why 20 out of 20 counties/school districts across Florida voted to tax themselves to cover the financial shortfalls from Tallahassee, and it’s precisely because these citizens realize the value of our public schools and the funding they require to keep up with routine maintenance, technology upgrades, or salary enhancements to local teachers and ESPs. And how does the Florida Legislature react? By trying to co-opt the windfall and force districts to share the funds with charter schools, many of whom are for-profit managed and will simply siphon off much of that money to their bottom lines.

Meanwhile–and as if the Florida Legislature hasn’t done enough to tilt the playing field already–an issue that has largely flown under the radar is that for the last several years the Florida Legislature has continued to give more and more of the PECO dollars to the charters, even after already forcing the districts to share revenue with a provision in HB7069 two years ago. Back then, traditional schools received $50 million, and charters received $50 million. And while that may seem equitable, it’s a lot less money when we consider the fact that there are over 3600 traditional public schools and just over 600 charters statewide. Last year, they gave traditional schools $50 million, and provided charters with just over $140 million, even though they have schools that are only 5-6 years old on average. This year? Well they just went ahead and gave them all of the PECO dollars, a cool $158 million.

So guess where cost overruns outside of categorical spending will come from? The BSA, or Base Student Allocation. But while everyone is cheering the $75 increase–which amounts to a 15,857% increase over last year’s 47 cents, a number I’m honestly surprised the governor, FLDOE, or legislators haven’t put on billboards yet–many forget that with the increased costs much of this will be eaten up and not go toward salaries. Here in Hillsborough, for instance, that portion of the budget would mean a $16.5 million dollar increase if every single student attended a traditional public school. They don’t, which means the number is smaller. Yet even if it were that number, it costs our district $17 million per year just to ensure step movement on our regular pay scale.

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Oh! Every teacher in Florida needs a sizable raise? Silly us! We thought you asked us to CUT your pay, you know, because you’re making too much already.

And that massive loss of gross earnings that nearly 10,000 teachers were fearing? Yeah, that happened too. Only the Florida Legislature could take a really bad idea and make it SO much worse. Setting aside the faulty premise of the previous Best & Brightest program, there were two beneficial aspects:

1) to some extent, it was within the teacher’s control to be rated highly effective (although many have noted the wide disparities in these ratings across districts throughout the state) and to then either have the scores from years past or–like my wife and I did–simply retake the test to get the requisite scores. Ultimately, it was largely about taking initiative and demonstrating individual excellence;

2) even if the scores were not there, virtually all teachers across the Sunshine State got something. If rated “Effective,” last year teachers would earn $800, and “Highly Effective” received $1200. The proposed House version of the updated program this year would have scrapped the scores and given all E rated teachers around $1100 and all HE rated teachers a bonus of $2300. Unfortunately for all of us, the Senate version was adopted, and that one is chock full of terrible ideas for how to “reward” teachers…

A one-time $4,000 recruitment bonus for new hires who are considered “content-experts” (Yet have never taught?! Sort of like the fresh out of college kids who got $6K because of test scores, right?!).

An “anybody’s guess” bonus attached to cockamamie schemes that are largely beyond the control of any given teacher at a school that now has to move up 3 percentage points over the two previous year’s school grade data (Yeah, good luck getting that…here’s your lottery ticket).

A “recognition” bonus of who knows how much based on the “how-much-of-the-previous-two-categories-did-we-spend-money-on-let’s-use-the-leftovers-for-that” plan. And oh yeah, the principal will decide. Nothing like putting him or her in a bad place or having teachers hating each other because they weren’t chosen.

In the end, this was another lousy legislative session for teachers and students all across Florida, regardless of how legislators try and spin this hot mess. There are several veteran teachers who have personally told me they are walking away after this year is over, and until the Florida Legislature actually starts listening to the people who serve our children on a daily basis things will never get better, and we’ll all be seeing more posts like Jonathan Carroll’s on Facebook.

Thanks for the pay cut, Tallahassee!

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Julie Hiltz, NBCT
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Joshua Newhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Considering the last Teacher Voice episode featured some of my friends who are fellow literature lovers, I thought we should expand the conversation to other bibliophiles. Ever since I was a young child, I’ve always had a soft spot for librarians/media specialists. In fact, I almost pursued my MLS degree while at USF, but the classroom beckoned and I never looked back. Having worked with a number of teacher-librarians over the years, I thought it strange that these people are not considered teachers by those who are outside public education. So I sat down with friends Julie Hiltz and Josh Newhouse, two media specialists here in Hillsborough County, to discuss their critical roles in the #HubOfSchool, the #TeachingIs social media awareness campaign to help the public understand exactly what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century, and a few other issues.

Thank you so much for listening! Please be sure to share with other teacher-librarians or anyone who doesn’t know what it is like to work in this essential role at a school.

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It’s 2019, we’ve got a booming economy, and I’m about to take a 13% pay cut.

According to Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, last year just over 9200 teachers in Florida qualified as Best and Brightest Scholars, the teachers who were both rated highly effective and had 80th+ percentile scores on the SAT or ACT. Between the $6,000 for the “scholar” designation and the $1,200 bonus for being highly effective, the net $7,200 represented an increase of over 13% to my base pay of $54,000.

At no point, however, in any of the announcements from either Governor Ron DeSantis or Senator Manny Diaz, has there been any mention of grandfathering in the previous recipients. Instead, it would seem nearly 10,000 teachers working in the Sunshine State–which already ranks 45th nationally in terms of pay–are about to take a substantial pay cut.

To be blunt, these bonus schemes are a horrible way to increase teacher recruitment and retention in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage, especially considering one never knows how long they will last. But teachers are desperate to earn more money however they can, and that is the primary reason my wife and I leapt at the chance to take the ACT in the fall of 2016 when I returned to the classroom after spending time as a new teacher mentor. We both passed the necessary benchmark and have received the money for the last few years, but now it would seem we might potentially see a loss of $14,400 between the both of us.

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What’s worse, we both feel responsible for encouraging many of our friends and coworkers to take the test, only to know that they too will face devastating pay cuts if the Florida Legislature’s latest version of Best and Brightest does not earmark money for those who have previously earned it. After all, the way HB7069 had written future dates and expanded criteria into the legislation seemed as if these bonuses were here to stay, with many (if not most) of the recipients planning their finances around these dollars coming in perpetuity.

Shame on us all for forgetting that this is Florida.

But let’s be honest, Best and Brightest was never a good idea. There is zero correlation between how well a person teaches and his or her scholastic aptitude. My original SAT scores from when I was 16 never would have qualified me for Best and Brightest, but at 41 when I sat down to take the ACT on that fateful Saturday morning, I was highly motivated to perform my best due to the economic incentive. Did passing the test help me become a better teacher, though? Absolutely not. Beyond the money, the only thing the test gave me was a sense of accomplishment for attaining my personal goal of scoring in the 99th percentile.

Yet here we are again, pitching a new cockamamie version of Best and Brightest program to help 45,000 lucky teachers with even more fickle metrics beyond their control such as a one point uptick in school grades. It seems glaringly obvious that these bonuses are largely concocted to circumvent collective bargaining / local control of funding by individual school districts, as well as to avoid having these dollars calculated into our paltry pensions from FRS. And just to add insult to injury, the state even goes so far as to direct the local districts to pay their portions of the payroll taxes from the lump sum, in effect taxing teachers twice.

The Florida Legislature needs to do much better than this. In the midst of statewide teacher shortage, our elected officials should start by taking all $400 plus million and sharing it with all education professionals who work with students regardless of whether or not they are in the classroom. ESPs, guidance counselors, media center specialists…anyone who has direct contact with kids on a daily basis deserve so much more than what they currently earn, especially when we take into account that Florida ranks 37th in terms of affordability (it’s the 13th most expensive state in which to live). While Senator Rader introduces bills each year to raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000, his idea is routinely ignored by his fellow legislators. Instead, we will probably continue to see more bonuses such as Best and Brightest, and if the Florida Legislature obstinately continues down this road, the least it could do is not penalize previous recipients by significantly cutting their current earnings.

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FirstResponder2
Aaron Feis, left, lost his life saving children; Scot Peterson, right, effectively did nothing.

Today is Valentine’s Day.

It is also the painful first anniversary of the tragic school shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and ended the lives of 17 people.

Three of those who lost their lives that day were educators who sacrificed their lives to protect their students.

Three teachers who cared deeply about our children and their future.

*****

We live in an era of mass shootings that show no sign of slowing down. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been 85 school shootings that have killed a total of 223 people, including teachers and staff. On average that means there have been over four school shootings a year, with each of those killing just over three people per occurrence.

But here’s the thing…

How many traditional “first responders” died in all of those school shootings over the last two decades?

Zero.

According to the recently released Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report, only one School Resource Officer (SRO) was wounded across those 20 years. Here are just a few notable quotes from the study’s findings:

“School personnel were most frequently involved in stopping attacks; school resource officers were less so.”

“High school attacks were stopped 11 times by administrators, teachers, and staff.”

“School administrators, teachers or staff members were sometimes among the first individuals killed.”

Chris Hixon
Chris Hixon, Navy veteran and teacher who died protecting students at MSD.

Educators may have been hired to teach the next generations that follow their own, but in an era of mass school shootings we have all become the real first responders. Even if a school is lucky enough to have an SRO or SSO (School Safety Officer), one person is not enough to stop a killing spree that will last only minutes at most. It takes administrators, teachers, and ESPs to work together and communicate when there are threats to student safety. Most of the time this vigilance is enough…and yet the average across the last two decades states that four times this year, it won’t be.

And the odds are that it will be school personnel who sacrifice their lives for the children, not the school resource officer.

This isn’t necessarily something that has only happened since Columbine either. Just a few days ago was the 31st anniversary of the first school shooting in the Tampa Bay region, which happened at Pinellas Park High School in 1988. Three people were shot by the young man amidst a scuffle in the lunch room: two were injured, one was killed, all were site-based administrators.

The reason these facts are being addressed is to highlight a simple fact: if educators are truly the first responders in a world of mass shootings that happen with some regularity at schools, the risks we take for our children and profession should be duly compensated.

First responders, as they are traditionally defined (fire, police, sheriff), receive a retirement multiplier of 3.0 from the state of Florida, which they undoubtedly deserve. Therefore, if a firefighter, police officer, or sheriff’s deputy works for 30 years, the Florida Retirement System pays them a pension based on 30 years times the multiplier, meaning they receive 90% of their highest five years averaged together.

Scot Peterson, for instance, now gets to take home a monthly pension of $8,702.

But an administrator, teacher or ESP? Our multiplier is 1.6, just barely over half of what traditional “first responders” receive and deserve. The top of the pay scale here in Hillsborough is $66K, a far cry from the $101,879 dollars Scot Peterson received to ride around campus on a golf cart all day until the moment when he was actually needed and did nothing. Meanwhile, a teacher in HCPS with 30 years of experience would receive only 48% of his or her final salary, netting that person a monthly benefit of $2,640.

How is this fair?

Scott Beigel
Scott Beigel, the third teacher at MSD who died saving the lives of students.

Here’s the solution: at a bare minimum, all site-based school employees–whether administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, education support personnel…anyone who directly has contact with kids and could potentially stop the next school shooting–should have their retirement multiplier pushed up to 2.0 so that a 30 year career receives 60% of the highest five years’ average. Considering the Florida Retirement System (FRS) is routinely touted as one of the best in the nation with nearly 85% of future liabilities already covered, surely there must be a way for the Florida Legislature to increase funding to the program to raise the multiplier to 2.0

And if our legislators cannot or will not at least lift the multiplier, the least they could do to compensate our additional risk as the real first responders at schools is to give us back the 3% we’ve been forced to contribute to our own paltry pensions since 2011.

If you read this and are an employee at a school site in one of our 67 counties, or a public education advocate who thinks those who protect children deserve more, please call or email your legislators to ask them to raise our retirement multiplier.

Related: The Day After… – students share their thoughts and concerns, hopes and fears in class the day after the Parkland tragedy.

Related: I’m Angry – guest post by a fellow teacher describing the initial surge of anger she felt after what happened at MSD.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns… – brief write up containing data after surveying students and fellow faculty members–specifically those who are military veterans–about how they feel regarding arming teachers.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns: Redux – guest post by another fellow teacher with many important points legislators should consider when weighing the big picture of public education in Florida.

 

 

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Carol Lerner, retired educator and the chair of POPS Manasota

This podcast is long overdue. Recorded last summer, I sat down with Carol Lerner to discuss her organization and advocacy yet never published this episode due to prioritizing political candidates leading up the election. The content, however, makes this an ideal podcast to listen to and share with others, especially with the 2019 legislative session just around the corner.

On this episode, Carol discusses the aims of the POPS Manasota organization; provides an excellent overview of the pernicious influence of corporate charter management companies, specifically Academica; walks the audience through the tax credit scholarship program that diverts would-be tax dollars away from the state’s general fund and toward private schools with no accountability; and closes out our chat with how much “dark money” is influencing school board races, particularly in Sarasota county.

If you’d like to learn more about POPS Manasota or join its cause if you live locally in Manatee or Sarasota, you can Like or Follow their Facebook page, follow along on Twitter, or reach out to Carol directly by emailing popsmanasota@gmail.com.

P.S. – If you’d like to learn how much “dark money” is being used to infiltrate local school boards to further along the privatization efforts by the corporate charter companies and their legislative lackeys, watch this highly informative video below.

DeSantis
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.

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When you look into the future of education, what do you see?

Friday afternoon I had the good fortune to speak to my middle brother Brad for over an hour and a half after school. He is a busy world traveler who works as a high level executive for one of the world’s major technology companies. He and I are alike in many ways, although our professional lives diverged when it came to what we chose to do.

But he is deeply committed to education, whether providing one for his own children, sharing his knowledge and expertise with the people on his team, or constantly learning himself, he thinks a great deal about what education is and what it will become in the future.

Our conversation largely revolved around what will happen to education when machine learning/artificial intelligence can supersede our own cognitive abilities. What will we “teach” our students then? Brad then sent me this short two-minute clip of Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba, sharing his vision of education in the future.

Yesterday morning, I ranted a bit about this on my personal Facebook page, and here are a few key passages:

Every teacher I know laments what public education has become: a non-stop testing regime that has largely sucked the life and joy out of education. People my age and older had the good fortune to “learn how to learn” for lack of a better phrase. With tests and “data-driven instruction” being the hallmark of today’s education—all in an effort to demonstrate what a student “knows” (or perhaps how well a student “tests”)—we’ve created a rather inhumane system in which teachers and students are the central components of a commodified, monetized education machine.

What happens, however, when machine learning and AI become more advanced than us? What will education look like when computers can “know” anything instantaneously, make calculations faster than any human, or anything else that machines can (and will continue to) do better than the most intelligent, most capable of us?

Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba (China’s Amazon, basically), believes that we need to educate our children about what makes us human—to be creative, to think critically, to empathize with others, to work collaboratively—and get away from teaching “knowledge” for which machines will inevitably have far more computational power than any of us.

While I might not see this radical shift during my tenure/career as an educator, I think I’ve been doing some of this in my own classroom for the last 7 years at least: focusing on the human experience; trying my best to exemplify love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; genuinely caring for each and every student who becomes a part of my life; inspiring kids to love learning intrinsically/for its own sake; using mindfulness techniques to manage stress while being in tune with one’s own mind…the list goes on and on, but it is these soft-skills that are far more important than the “facts” they can look up on Google at any given moment by consulting their smartphones.

Having slept on it and thought about this challenge all day yesterday–and as much as I love the ideas put forth by Jack Ma–I don’t think he’s completely right (or at least his comments don’t provide enough nuance for the entire educational experience). While I would concur that education fundamentally needs to be about teaching kids how to learn, adapt to and thrive with change, as well as focus on what makes us inherently human, there is still a place for some fact-based knowledge.

Here’s Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame to share why (it’s cued up to start at 7:16, but the whole talk is worth watching):

As a teacher of the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, Theory of Knowledge, I am fortunate enough to teach the kind of class that Jack Ma talks about: one that instills the value of conceptual and critical thinking while constantly asking “how do we know?”

Knowledge is tricky and complex. It is dynamic and we can never know anything with absolute certainty. And while Jack Ma has a clear / important point about fact-based knowledge being important in our world for the last 200 years since we started compulsory public education in the West, I agree with Ken Jenning’s point that the bits and pieces we carry around in our heads (in TOK we call this “personal knowledge”) is critical for our own self-identity and our shared cultural heritage.

Hopefully the future of education falls somewhere between these two views. Either way, the future of education is perhaps a return to the past: a time when we didn’t incessantly test our children in the name of accountability and to make a quick buck; a time when we focused on educating the child how to be human rather than a machine that simply produces particular outputs based on the bubble sheet in front of him or her.

What do you think the future of education has in store for us? Share your thoughts below or comment on the Teacher Voice Facebook page.

Andy Warrener
Andy Warrener, NPA Candidate for House District 64, along with his daughter and son

The latest episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Andy Warrener, the NPA/Independent candidate in a three way race for House District 64 that covers northwestern Hillsborough and parts of Pinellas county. I specifically wanted to chat with Andy about public education issues and the rest of his campaign platform because, like me and about 1/3 of all Floridians, he does not belong to a political party.

Beyond the issues, we also have a substantive discussion about why he is running without party affiliation, why so many people are choosing to leave their previous party, and how the growing number of independent voters are starting to coalesce around grassroots organizations such as Unite America. Please listen and be sure to share with others, especially those who live in HD64!

If you’d like to learn more about Andy and his campaign, you can visit his website FloridaForAll or Like/Follow his page on Facebook. Be sure to hurry, though; early voting is in full swing and election day is Tuesday, November 6th!

P.S. – Andy also supports the Strengthen Our Schools initiative and was even the person who suggested the term be 10 years (rather than 15 or 20) so that it might be more palatable to Hillsborough County voters. Here is a clip of his speech from the August 24th special board meeting. The referendum can be found at the very end of the ballot; please vote YES!

For my entire voting life, I have never belonged to either major political party. There are parts of both platforms that I appreciate, but the political fracturing that began with Newt Gingrich and the subsequent polarization that has crippled our country and the parties themselves during the last 25 years has only cemented my belief that we should all be putting people over party politics.

Clearly I am not alone, as those who are choosing to leave their party affiliations or registering for the first time without a declared party are growing, and political independents now outnumber both those who identify as Democrat or Republican. It’s also the reason grassroots groups such as Unite America, whose slogan is “country over party”, are trying to organize fellow political moderates/centrists in an effort to bridge the divide that has opened up between the two major parties.

As an independent voter, I have voted for people on both sides of the aisle. This year, however, I voted for more Democrats than at any point in the 20 years I’ve lived here in Florida. In fact, the only Republican I voted for on this year’s ballot is Chad Chronister, the sheriff of Hillsborough County. As a Social Studies teacher who has lived under one party rule in two states (first in Rhode Island under a Democratic majority, then in Florida under the GOP for the last two decades), I will unequivocally state that one party rule never works–it always leaves segments of the population feeling underrepresented and unheeded.

My votes this year are an attempt to be pragmatic and bring balance back to our state government, especially in light of how Florida’s closed primaries disenfranchise all NPA voters. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano noted that we are only one of nine states that uses a completely closed primary system, which in turn fosters “a rabid form of group-think during the primary season.” And whereas independents would have been more likely to support more moderate candidates and perhaps change the shape of the general election, instead we are left with choices that are on the fringes of the left and right respectively.

The first time I saw Philip Levine speak in person, he said something that resonated with me: “I’m not left, I’m not right, I’m forward.” As someone who wants a candidate that can build bridges rather than burn them, I thought Levine’s entrepreneurial spirit and experience as a business developer and owner would draw moderate, business-minded Republicans, while his tenure as Miami Beach mayor that brought many progressive reforms would have made inroads with Democrats.

But my ballot only allowed me to vote for judges and school board members…

That’s not to say that I do not like Andrew Gillum; I like him a great deal: he’s charismatic, knows the issues, and has had a solid campaign platform since day one. And most importantly to me and millions of other public education advocates all across the Sunshine State, Gillum has a laser-like focus on public education and the lack of funding that has brought the system to its knees after 20 years of Republican rule.

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Since 1998, this has been the GOP-led Florida Legislature’s directive.

While this has been written about numerous times (About Those Stubborn Facts; Numbers Don’t Lie), the most salient fact everyone should know is that in 1998 when the GOP took full control of our state government, Florida ranked 27th in per-pupil spending; 20 years later, Florida has fallen to 44th in the U.S. Back then, Florida spent $6,443, but to have kept up with inflation our current level of funding would need to be $9,913.

It’s now $7,408, over $4,000 below the national average.

And it’s not just public education. Florida ranks dead last in the entire country when it comes to investing in public services, despite the fact that we are the third most populous state with a one trillion dollar economy. In fact, by just about every single metric possible Florida has gotten worse on rankings lists during the last 20 years of Republican reign. Unless you’re part of the richest 1% of Americans (and Florida has a high concentration), a major stakeholder in a large corporation, or a politically connected individual, things have only gotten worse for you.

If you are a “values voter” who has voted Republican in the past out of personal conviction, you have done so to your own economic peril, especially if you work in public education in any way. I am not advocating voting for Democrats because I believe wholeheartedly in every aspect of their platform; instead, I do so out of sheer pragmatism and a need to bring balance back to our state government so that it will be more responsive to the needs of its people rather than an entrenched establishment that only cares about the special interests that fill its campaign coffers.

I believe in compromise. I believe in seeking a middle ground when it comes to policy making decisions.  I believe in representation that is truly responsive to the citizenry. And I believe the only way we are going to get back on track is by electing Andrew Gillum as our next governor and hopefully getting close to even in the Florida Senate. While the House is too lopsided to bring parity in one fell swoop, especially in light of the gerrymandered districts in which we all live, any seats that are picked up will benefit us all. Florida is a great state and could be so much more. Let’s all vote to ensure we have a balanced government starting Wednesday, November 7th.

P.S. – If you’ve read this far and also live/vote in Hillsborough, please support our schools by voting YES on the Strengthen Our Schools initiative that I wrote about previously in Why We Must Pass Both Tax Referenda: The “Numbers Don’t Lie” Redux and Hidden Benefits: The Virtuous Cycle of Economic Activity in Hillsborough County. Our students and staff deserve so much more than the Florida Legislature has given us!

Christmast Morning
Hopefully this will be my reaction when I read the results of this year’s elections the next day.

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!