Florida rises up for public education

Fifteen thousand educators and allies descended on the state Capitol of Florida for a powerful and historic rally Jan. 13, the day before the state Legislature begins its 2020 session, demanding more funds for public schools and amplifying the needs of their students. The event was part of the AFT’s Fund Our Future campaign and the latest in a swelling tide of activism among teachers, support personnel, parents, students and community members across the country.

protesting educators hold sign that says fund public schools fund our future

This movement to support public education has already begun to make a difference in places like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and West Virginia, where activists have won additional funding for their schools. Now it’s Florida’s turn.

“This is a ‘which side are you on?’ moment,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told the crowd of activists in Tallahassee. “It’s time to make public schools the schools our children deserve—and the schools where our educators have the tools and respect they need for our kids to soar.”

“We demand more to fund our future,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

“Today, we are demanding a decade of progress because we’ve had 20 years of disinvestment in our public schools.”

Florida ranks 47th in the nation for teacher pay, more than $12,000 below the national average. Schools are falling apart, equipment is outdated and per-student expenditures rank 43rd in the country. Nearly half of the state’s education support workers earn wages below the national poverty level, and educators are leaving the profession, or leaving the state: There were 3,500 teacher vacancies this year, and 300,000 students started without a full-time certified teacher in their classroom.

protestors gather in front of a large tree

Florida educators and their communities have had enough—and they have national support. Education unions from across the country showered Florida with solidarity during the action. “We know how to build movements and how teachers unions win,” said Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which recently went on strike. “Enough is enough,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. Both leaders attended the rally along with students, teachers, school board members and activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. Crowds of people wearing “red for ed” chanted and sang, and a high school band kept the beat.

Despite such obvious need and support, some educators took a real risk to attend the rally. The state department of education threatened to fire teachers in Polk County if they left school to protest, even though teachers planned months in advance to take a day of personal leave and arranged for substitute teachers.

But the FEA, which organized the rally, stands behind them, and organized an impromptu march on the office of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. “Our members are frustrated,” says FEA President Ingram, explaining why teachers are willing to risk their jobs to march. “It's well documented that Florida is facing a teacher and education staff professional shortage crisis. … That's why we're rallying, so lawmakers take this shortage and the conditions in our schools seriously. … They cannot and will not get away with blaming educators for understaffed schools.”

Educators have a vision for a better way forward. The FEA’s campaigning for a Decade of Progress that would pump $22 billion into public education over the next 10 years and aim for a top-10 ranking for teacher and support staff pay. This year’s ask of $2.4 billion would increase per-student funding by $767; restore cuts to music, art, physical education and school counselors, psychologists and social workers; help schools catch up on years of underfunding; and provide a 10 percent pay increase for all public school employees. Research shows that the state does have money to fund these programs—the state boasts having the 17th-largest gross domestic product in the world —and only needs to prioritize education.

FEA has promised to continue to fight for just that. “We aren't going to shrink back; we will not retreat; we will not yield, nor will we pause; we will not wait our turn; we will not fall back,” said Ingram. “In fact, we must say to lawmakers: If you go after my job, I most certainly will go after yours—because we know how to vote.”

[Virginia Myers]