#FundOurFutureFL: Teachers Take on Tallahassee as Year of the Teacher Kicks Off

15 mins read
Graphic courtesy Twitter.

The Year of the Teacher in Florida may not be exactly what Governor Ron DeSantis (R) had in mind when he announced it, but it may coincide in quite interesting ways with the projected 2020 Year of Women Voters. 

DeSantis has declared 2020 the “Year of the Teacher” with a $903 million budget proposal that includes over $600 million to raise starting teacher salaries and $300 million in bonuses. Existing teachers and educators’ unions have called the plan encouraging but flawed since it does nothing to retain current educators who are currently among the lowest compensated in the nation, nor fix badly underfunded schools that have suffered greatly after decades of funding redirects that have left Florida schools badly understaffed of educators and support staff. 

At least 20,000 were expected to attend the rally on Monday, January 13, 2020, which was scheduled months ago to coincide with the eve of the 2020 state legislative session. The Florida Education Association (FEA), which organized the event, has cited statistics showing the state began the school year with nearly 3,500 instructional vacancies, leaving about 300,000 students without a full-time permanent teacher. Teachers and advocates from around the state wanted to see lawmakers in person to push for reinvestment in a public education system teachers unions and their allies say has been decimated by a decade or more of funding cutbacks.

However, bus loads of teachers, administrators, and parents descended on the state’s capitol for the Rally in Tally immediately following a very contentious weekend for thousands of the teachers from the critical I4 Corridor surrounding counties of Polk and Brevard on either side of Orlando in Central Florida.

(See some of the best signs from the rally in the Tallahassee Democrat here)

Despite many months of planning for the day, news broke on Friday that Polk County teachers had received a threatening email from their superintendent and the top attorney for the Florida Department of Education indicating teachers might be fired or unions fined up to $20,000 if teachers used their own paid time off (PTO) days to attend the rally, which was rebranded in the email as an “illegal strike.”

The warning, sent in an email sent to the Polk school district late Friday, created a furor over the weekend, with many educators and parents arguing the state and the school district were colluding to tamp down on attendance at a legal gathering.

The scandal was broken by a member of Polk County’s own school board, Billy Townsend, who first posted about it on his Facebook page and later wrote a full recap of the experience

“Polk Education Association has done everything according to their contract,” noted Vice President Vanessa Skipper of the nearby Brevard Federation of Schools which would soon have their own ordeal related to the rally. “Teachers are allowed to take a personal day as long as they have submitted for it with 24 hours notice. In addition, the president of Polk Education Association worked closely with the School District of Polk County to ensure that district level personnel would be present in schools to substitute in classrooms. 

Townsend noted on his Twitter and Facebook pages that the effort seemed tied to the sheer numbers of teachers planning to attend from Polk County 

“This is a last minute scare tactic from the commissioner of education Richard Corcoran to try to dissuade educators from standing up for their students and their profession,” said Skipper. “Teachers care about the future, and that is why they are exercising their right to take a personal day to come participate in democracy by advocating for students and classrooms and public education at our state’s capitol.”

Throughout the weekend, the story made national news as the teachers in Polk County and many others were incensed by the heavy handed treatment towards teachers simply trying to meet with lawmakers getting ready to start session. The email sent to teachers by the Polk Superintendent had rebranded the rally in terms of a strike, something basically forbidden in Florida, a “right to work” state with little protections for public employees such as teachers. 

While a handful of arguments were made online about how teachers should rally on a weekend so as not to disrupt school days, they were quickly shot down by those pointing out that just as other industries organize “Tourism Day” and the like to coordinate efforts to speak to lawmakers about issues impacting their profession, teachers who wanted to be able to actually meet with lawmakers had to rally the effort for a week day otherwise lawmakers would not be available. Unlike other attendees for days focused on industries such as tourism however, teachers’ attendance had to be scheduled as a paid or unpaid day off work despite the fact that advocating for the children under their instruction was quite obviously job related. 

By the end of the weekend, many excuses and apologies had been made to the Polk County teachers and some offended teachers who hadn’t planned on going had decided to make the trip. 

“At first our numbers dipped by a few hundred,” said Anita Carson, a Polk County teacher and officer with the Polk Education Association. “But then they came right back up. I think a lot of people who were maybe on the fence before, looked at that email and were like “This just really makes me mad now.’” 

Saturday, another Central Florida story about the Teachers’ Rally started making the rounds when popular teachers’ blog “Bored Teachers” alerted readers to an unattributed article published by a website called the Brevard Times. The slanted Saturday “article” about the Polk County fiasco, which ironically listed no byline nor site publisher or ownership, listed Space Coast teachers’ names who planned to attend the rally and encouraged concerned parents to contact their teachers’ schools. 

The Bored Teacher blog alerted readers and called them to action. Demonstrating that state and national support for teachers has not diminished since the successful teachers’ strikes in West Virginia a few years ago, thousands of angry public education supporters took to the Brevard Times’ Facebook page to vent their frustration and express support for Florida teachers. 

Over the weekend and into Monday as the rally kicked off, dozens of elected officials across Florida made statements of support for the teachers under fire and all those who made the trip to Tallahassee. Presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren was the first national official to express support on Sunday, followed by an Op-Ed in the Sun-Sentinel from fellow candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders on Monday.

See a sample of support statements here from Congressman Darren Soto, Rep. Anna Eskamani, State Rep. & Congressional Candidate Adam Hattersley, Congresswoman Val Demmings, Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Congressional Candidate Jim Kennedy, and Candidate for State Representative Andrew Learned

All of the added attention to the rally helped bring attention to the myriad of issues teachers were headed to Tallahassee to speak to lawmakers about. Far from the accusations that teachers were only seeking pay raises, multiple outlets reported on the current dismal standing of Florida’s public education system after decades of experimental plans, high stakes testing, and underfunding from the Republican controlled state legislature. 

“The rally was excellent and well attended by thousands of teachers from across the state,” said Amanda Linton, Educator and Candidate for Florida State Senate to represent Hillsborough & Manatee counties in District 21. “The union rallied around Polk and the President of the Polk County union, Stephanie Yocum, spoke at the event. Both situations that happened in the 48 hours leading up to the event served to bolster everyone’s spirits. We know they cannot fire teachers- Florida already has a massive shortage!”

“Today was empowering and meaningful,” said Brevard County teacher Arianne Rivera. “The last two decades of neglect by the legislature were called out by many of the speakers. The messages from the Chicago and New York Union Presidents were uniting. I think when we know we are not alone and that the changes are happening in other places around the nation, it gives hope and rallies us to push on in the fight.”


Credit: Florida Policy Institute

“For the past ten years, the lack of adequate funding for our public schools has led to a crisis,” said Jessica Harrington, an Odessa middle school teacher and candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in FL-D64. “We call this the ‘Race to the Bottom.’ Florida teacher pay is 48th in the nation and dead last 50th for education spending when you adjust for inflation. We have among the worst paid teachers in the country. Florida started the school year with 3,500 teacher vacancies. That leaves thousands of students without qualified, certified teachers in the classroom. 

“There is also a plan to privatize our education system by funneling dollars to private and for-profit charter schools that are not being held accountable or to the same standards as public schools,” added Harrington. “The destruction of public education cycle is clear: Step 1. Defund/underfund schools. Step 2. Place blame on teachers and schools that cannot perform under those conditions. Step 3. Take money from public schools and give it to for-profit schools. Step 4. Lawmakers get donations from the companies and individuals who make money off of the for- profit school system. Step 5. Repeat.”

Florida’s teachers, and parents, may have finally had enough of this cycle. 

“For myself, I have a renewed drive to fight for what we need,” said Linton. “By making my voice heard and standing up for my students, I feel so proud to have been there today at the rally. This is what democracy looks like!”

As noted on Twitter by one former anonymous Brevard County teacher who recently left the state to find better professional opportunities as part of the “Silent Strike” of teachers:

“It really says something about how teachers are treated as less than professionals in Florida that the same people who are trained in how to use a tourniquet on bullet wounds now and expected to be willing to take a bullet for their students are attacked for taking one day off on their own time to talk to lawmakers about what it’s like on the ground in Florida schools.”


Read some of the news coverage surrounding the Florida Teacher Rally:

Related hashtags: 

#TakeOnTallahassee #FundOurFutureFL #RedForEd #RallyInTally #WhyWeRally #WeAreAllPolkFolk #4EveryStudent #PublicEd #VoteLikeAMother #DemCastFL

# # # pasted-image.tiffCredit: @BrowardTeachers

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