Florida Educators 'Awake the State' to Attacks

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Floridians flooded the streets in 31 communities across the state on March 8 in a grass-roots show of support for policies that sow the seeds for continued growth, not partisan division, in public education and other vital services.

Floridians rally for Awake the State Teachers and other school employees spearheaded scores of "Awake the State" after-school rallies that took place within hours of the 2011 state Legislature's opening session. Joined by parents, students, firefighters, police officers and other concerned residents, Florida's public educators mobilized in Tallahassee against a fringe agenda unfolding in the Statehouse. It's an agenda that takes dead aim at one of the nation's fastest improving public education systems with mandates for untested and punitive new approaches to teacher evaluation and compensation. The crowds also voiced strong opposition to devastating budget cuts to schools and other public services that were proposed by Gov. Rick Scott, and to bills designed to weaken the ability of middle-class Floridians to help shape public policy through their unions.

Awake the State rally  One of the biggest rallies took place on the streets of Fort Lauderdale, where members of the Broward Teachers Union joined as many as 2,000 citizens who encircled a downtown federal courthouse—a boisterous, enthusiastic crowd that swamped a few dozen nearby protesters who turned out for a "tea party" counterdemonstration.

Scott's efforts to secure cuts of 10 percent in public education while pushing for reckless corporate tax cuts have sent a clear message to educators and communities across the state, BTU president and AFT vice president Pat Santeramo told reporters at the rally. The governor is placing a deficit that was "created on the backs of public employees and taking it out of the pockets of working families—and that's just shameful on the part of this governor."

In Miami, members of the United Teachers of Dade joined with hundreds of labor activists and concerned citizens who filled an auditorium for a 900-person rally to protest the Scott-led agenda. The event, which drew participation from the NAACP and other community groups, set aside time for rally-goers to pick up their cellular phones and flood the switchboard at the state Capitol, urging their representatives to stand for legislation that serves Florida's middle class, not the special interests. It's time for "these legislators to listen to the voice of the community," UTD president Karen Aronowitz told reporters.

"The spirit in that room, the motivation, the unity were simply amazing," said Steven Goldman, a teacher at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School. "Labor is the middle class, and our legislators need to know it. There will be opportunities to deliver this message, now and in the future, and we will speak with our votes," said Goldman, who is also vice president of high schools for the UTD.

The March 8 events provided an opportunity to rub elbows with celebrities, too. At a rally in Sarasota, best-selling author Stephen King addressed the crowd, adding his voice to the day's call for strong public services. (See video of King's remarks.) "Maybe my next horror novel should feature Rick Scott," King quipped to cheers from the crowd.

An estimated 10,000 Floridians took part in "Awake the State" events, organized in large and small communities across the peninsula. It was the latest in a series of actions aimed at showing broad community support for strong public schools: On March 5, a UTD-organized Saturday afternoon picnic and rally drew a crowd of 5,000—members along with their neighbors and families from communities across Miami. The event raised awareness on how bills like S.B. 736, the so-called "teacher quality" legislation, would actually cripple the state's ability to attract and retain excellent teachers.

Watch a local news report on the protests in South Florida.

More information about what's going on in Florida is available here. [Mike Rose, United Teachers of Dade and WSVN-TV/photos by BTU Communications Dept., Natalia Nunez and Kathryn Wilson]

March 9, 2011