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Teachers unions from Dade, Broward, Palm Beach vow to work together

Wearing red, the leaders of three South Florida teachers unions announced Wednesday a new effort to work together.

Their first priority: getting people to vote in the Nov. 6 elections to reelect Florida judges and defeat Amendment 8, which they believe would divert tax dollars from public schools to religious institutions through vouchers. They also are supporting President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

The teacher unions care about who sits on the Florida Supreme Court, because lawsuits and appeals over state laws are often decided by the judges.

Beyond the Nov. 6 election, the three leaders said they want to partner on education policy, starting with the overuse of high-stakes testing, education funding and bridging the learning gaps among students.

Representing teachers in the Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach districts were John Tarka, administrator for the Broward Teachers Union; Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade; and Debra Wilhelm, president of the Palm Beach Classroom Teachers Association.

“We are forming a powerful, unified voice for public education that needs to be heard throughout South Florida, in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C. When we speak as one, we enhance our influence on behalf of the children and families we serve,” Aronowitz said.

In the three counties, there are about a million children and together the three labor groups represent about 35,000 members.

The announcement comes as teachers in Chicago are on strike over contract terms, including pay, evaluations, class size and other issues. The three local union leaders expressed support for the Chicago teachers.

While all three groups are members of the Florida Education Association, Aronowitz said South Florida has a unique place in the state and some unique issues in education, such as more immigrant students.

They urged parents, teachers and students to vote.

“Vote as if yours is the only one that counts,” Aronowitz said.

Tarka said Amendment 8 is one of the most significant issues on the ballot, one of several state constitutional amendments proposed. Often called the religious freedom constitutional amendment, it would remove Florida’s ban on the funding of religious organizations by taxpayers. The Broward School Board recently expressed its disagreement and resolved to inform voters.

“You’re being lied to when someone says it’s about religious freedom. That’s a lie,” Tarka said. “It’s about taking tax dollars to underwrite different vouchers to provide opportunities with tax dollars for religious schools to grow and prosper.”

Tarka said religious schools have a place, but public schools can’t be hurt by losing precious tax dollars.

Proponents of the measure argue the change is needed to avoid a lawsuit barring the state from contracting with religious affiliated agencies that provide public services.

Wilhelm, who was a second-grade teacher before becoming the union leader last year in Palm Beach, said new policy changes, such as the Senate Bill 736 mandating merit pay for teachers by 2014, have impacted the classroom.

“It’s taken away from teachers’ academic freedom,” she said.