Florida Fights To Keep Public Voice in Public Policy

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The playbook is clear: Grease a package of fringe bills quickly through state legislatures by taking the "public" out of "public policy." These cynical tactics have hit with a vengeance in Florida.

Meeting in Tallahassee Feb. 23, the state's Senate Budget Committee had a list of bills a mile long but managed to hear only three of them, including S.B. 736, legislation purported to be about teacher quality. In a state that has soared to the top in recent "Quality Counts" education surveys, the bill would force school districts to do a fool's errand: Make school principals fire their way to excellence.

State Sen. John Thrasher (R-Jacksonville) made a motion to vote on S.B. 736 just before noon, allowing less than half an hour for public testimony; more than 30 people had signed up to speak on the bill. In the end, only five were allowed to testify—and four of them were bill backers brought in by the new education foundation headed by ex-District of Columbia school chancellor Michelle Rhee. Among those not allowed to speak were teachers who had traveled hundreds of miles to make their voices heard.

Chris Ott, a kindergarten teacher in Alachua County, told the Florida Times-Union : "I drove all night, and I spent five hours getting my sub planned yesterday, and I didn't get paid—this is my personal day, time off—and I got screwed."

The bill steamrolled through committee, largely on a party-line vote, and was sent to the Rules Committee to be put on the Senate calendar when the full Legislature convenes March 8. A party-line vote also moved companion legislation through the House K-20 Competitiveness Committee that afternoon.

The Senate Budget Committee also moved a Taxpayer Bill of Rights piece of legislation (SJR 958) out of committee on a party-line vote. It would put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot that would ask voters to decide caps for state government taxing and spending—preventing the state from raising revenue to make up for cuts education has suffered since 2007, and laying the groundwork for disastrous deterioration in infrastructure, public services and education that other states have experienced after enacting similar schemes.

The debacle in the Senate committee was not the first time that policymakers, pushing a fringe agenda, have seen fit to close the circle against dissenting voices. On Feb. 7, new Gov. Rick Scott broke with tradition when he fled the state capital to release his devastating budget plan (which included cuts of 10 percent for public education) at a small Tea party rally in central Florida.

AFT affiliates across Florida are fighting back against this calculated effort to ice the public's voice out of the debate.

The state federation has launched an online "Pump Up the Volume" campaign on its home page, urging Floridians to call and e-mail legislators and tell them to fund and fix teacher-quality legislation. And affiliates have joined a broad spectrum of community organizations to gear up for street demonstrations and rallies across the state targeted to the March 8 opening of the full Legislature.  [Mike Rose]

February 24, 2011