Union leaders have been crisscrossing Florida in a big red bus over the last few weeks, inviting teachers, support staff, students, families and community members to help increase the state’s education spending. It’s part of the Florida Education Association’s Fund Our Future campaign, one of many spurred by the AFT’s national Fund Our Future project, and it is leading up to Take on Tallahassee, a large-scale action in the state’s capital on Jan. 13.
“We’ve got to start putting our money where our priorities are, and our priorities have to be our children,” says FEA Secretary-Treasurer Carole Gauronskas. During the five-week bus tour, which began Oct. 21 and runs through Nov. 23, she and other union officers—FEA President Fedrick Ingram and FEA Vice President Andrew Spar—have hosted community conversations, held news conferences and met with students, teachers, parents, superintendents, school board members and many others. In Manatee County, the union officers gave away 3,000 free books to children; in DeSoto County, they attended a ceremony for nearly 90 students who had perfect attendance. And at one meeting, where Spanish-speaking parents told them they wanted to learn English so they could participate more fully in their children’s education, they set up weekly English classes for the community.
But the need is far greater than anything the union can cover. The tour has passed through crumbling gymnasiums, past water fountains with undrinkable water, and through one school where staff have to set up buckets and cover computers with plastic to protect them every time it rains. One district is transporting children in school buses more than two decades old. Another checks the stadium for foundational cracks after every Friday night football game, in case they have to call off the next game for safety.
“Schools have to choose between repairing the wall or the roof, or making sure they’ve got classroom desks and computers,” says Gauronskas.
Infrastructure is just one of many needs:
- More than 300,000 students went without a full-time certified teacher on their first day of school this year, with 3,500 teacher vacancies across the state.
- Teacher pay ranks 46th in the nation, more than $12,000 below the national average.
- Nearly half the state’s education support workers earn wages below the national poverty level.
- Per-student expenditures rank 43rd in the nation.
- Funding per full-time university student is half the national average.
- A shortage of paraprofessionals is so severe it could create legal issues when mandated individualized education programs go unmet.
“It’s really bad,” says FEA’s Spar. Education spending (when adjusted for inflation) is lower than it was during the 2008 recession, and even a significant boost in funding—FEA is lobbying for $2.4 billion this year—would move the state just four slots up in per-student expenditure rankings.
But FEA is optimistic about the way forward. “Our members are more sincere than they have ever been about loving kids and caring about their schools,” says FEA President Ingram, and they are rising up to make sure those kids have what they need. Faced with an “onslaught of bad policy and obstruction,” adds Ingram, “They’ve had it. They are ready to fight. … I am so optimistic that we’re going to be able to make some changes and set a course correction here.”
“My students are working on vehicles that are over a decade old,” says Michael Broud, an automotive tech teacher in Brevard County who plans to attend the Jan. 13 rally. “I’m working on stuff that is from yesteryear, and we need more funding to get us into the right century.”
“I decided I could no longer sit back and wait for somebody else to make decisions for me or for the future of the state,” says Jackie Small, a 32-year veteran educator and a member of the Brevard Federation of Teachers. “I decided to … get myself on that bus [to Tallahassee] and holler, and they’ll hear me.”
FEA is campaigning for a “Decade of Progress”: $22 billion in public education funding over the next 10 years and 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.
“We have seen teachers come together with education staff professionals, parents and the community and have tremendous impact, whether it’s in West Virginia or Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles or Chicago,” says Spar. “We can’t sit on the sidelines.”
FEA expects thousands of members and public school supporters to show up for the Jan. 13 event—scheduled for the day before the legislative session begins so that education advocates can set the agenda in advance. “We’re raising awareness of what is really happening in our public schools,” says Spar. “I’m hopeful we’ll make an impact.”