Feeling overlooked and undermined by the Tallahassee politicians who control education policy and the purse strings to the classroom, teachers marched Friday on downtown Miami.
A few hundred educators, friends and family walked a mile south from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, shutting down one lane of Biscayne Boulevard. Though the turnout was far lighter than anticipated — more than 2,000 were expected — those who came hoped to amplify their voices in opposition to Florida’s high-stakes testing standards, stagnant education funding and teacher merit-pay.
“We’re professionals. Let us do our jobs,” said Liane Harris, a 22-year teacher who helps struggling middle school students, who are too old to attend regular classes, earn the credits they need to reach high school.
Carrying a sign that depicted the Sunshine State as a gun aimed at a school house, Harris said high-stakes testing now takes up a third of the school year and has robbed teachers’ independence.
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“We could be teaching instead of focusing on passing this test,” she said.
The United Teachers of Dade organized Friday’s march to send a message to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature that the state’s current per-student funding levels and teacher evaluation policies aren’t acceptable. The union, in advertising the event, argued that too much power has been handed over to for-profit charter school management companies and that education has been underfunded
“Mr. Governor in Tallahassee, you must do better,” union president Fedrick Ingram said on a stage in front of the Torch of Friendship. Ingram then gave out the number to the governor’s office and urged the audience to jam the line.
Had anyone called and been put on hold, they would have heard a recording that reminded them about Scott’s $1 billion in education investment last year, including $480 million for teacher raises. In Miami-Dade, that came out to more than $1,000 for most teachers, not including federal bonuses thrown in by the union and district.
Still, Florida’s per-pupil spending remains lower than pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation, according to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.
A handful of local politicians participated in Friday’s rally, including Democratic state senators Oscar Braynon II and Dwight Bullard, and Miami-Dade School Board members Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, Perla Tabares Hantman and Martin Karp. Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee Chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein started a chant of “Scott Free” — as in Rick Scott-free in 2014. And Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, riled the crowd when she claimed former Gov. Jeb Bush told her that children were “casualties of war” in the battle for education when he was fighting to bring in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in the late 1990s.
“This whole high-stakes testing has nothing to do with accountability,’’ she said. “It has to do with money, the billions of dollars these companies are making.”
One of the most-cited issues Friday was Florida’s evolving teacher evaluation system, which uses testing and a value-added formula to determine whether teachers are successful. The formula, often called the VAM, remains controversial as teachers continue to receive evaluations based off test scores in subjects they don’t teach.
“We’ve been VAMboozled,” Ingram told the crowd.
For Patrenia Dozier Washington, a teacher at Ojus Elementary for 26 years, the problems she and her 17 first graders experience come down to underfunding. She said she didn’t receive enough reading textbooks this year to give one to each student. And she won’t have working interactive classroom technology until the district rolls out its bond-funded high-tech blackboards in the coming weeks.
“I just want people to know,” she said. “Come walk in our shoes and see how we feel.”
In other education news Friday, the Miami-Dade school district announced that it had reached a stop-gap agreement on healthcare benefits with the union that represents bus drivers.
A sudden spike in healthcare costs after the new year frustrated many bus drivers and may have led to a driver “sick-out” that left some bus routes uncovered on Jan. 10 and caused scores of students to be late to class. The increase came amid stalled contract negotiations.
The agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees temporarily allows employees to enroll in a cheaper healthcare program. It came in time to avoid the higher deductions from employees’ Jan. 24 paychecks. Negotiations continue.