Public Schools and Teachers are Essential to our Success

In the midst of the current pandemic, Governor Ron Desantis recently said, “…if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools.”

As a parent and an educator, I worry greatly when I see Florida’s Governor compare our public schools to a Home Depot, to a Walmart. That startling statement shows me in stark terms how some of our leaders think, or perhaps do not think, about the challenges and complexities facing our public schools.

Children do not spend eight hours a day in Home Depot, they do not eat lunch there, they do not take the bus there every day. Florida desperately needs leaders and legislators who respect and acknowledge the critical importance of public schools and the teachers, administrators, and staff that educate and care for Florida’s children.

Each day the pandemic seems to lay bare another important lesson. As we look with uncertainty toward the beginning of a new school year, Floridians and perhaps even Florida’s governor and legislators are finally grasping the importance of public schools – not only to our students, but to our economy and our society.

Teachers have always been critical front-line workers, and public schools provide a multitude of essential services to ensure the well-being of children and families, many of which go far beyond education. Our public schools are a safety net for food insecurity, mental healthcare, before and after school care, and more. We count on our schools, especially families with working parents.

In this moment of renewed focus, we must strongly advocate to fully fund Florida’s public schools and provide teachers with the support they need to ensure Florida’s students get the education they deserve.

Vouchers as the GOP’s new definition of Public Education

At the end of June, with parents, teachers, students, and school boards in crisis over the challenges and uncertainties of reopening public schools for the school year, Governor Destantis signed legislation to dramatically expand taxpayer-funded voucher programs. This move will send 46,000 children to private schools on taxpayer money intended for Florida’s public schools and further bleed the public schools of desperately needed tax dollars.

The new measure (House Bill 7067) makes it easier for families to qualify for a voucher and quadruples the rate at which vouchers grow annually, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The additional cost of the recent expansion is estimated to be about $200 million. This money will be on top of the $130 million in state funds Desantis set aside in 2019 to create the “Family Empowerment Scholarship” – the first state program that funded vouchers through taxpayer dollars.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship a program, another funnel for tax dollars to voucher schools, was designed to be funded by corporations receiving tax credits for paying directly into the voucher fund, will now be supplemented by federal coronavirus dollars designated for Florida’s schools. Under the expanded legislation recently signed by Desantis, the state will also provide a $30 million “safety net” for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, using the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund – federal coronavirus dollars provided as assistance for K-12 education.

Let than sink in…. $30 million dollars in federal money to handle coronavirus costs for K-12 education has been set aside for the voucher program.

Desantis, who rarely visits public schools, announced the expanded voucher program from a private religious school in Tampa. At the event, the President Scott Morreale of Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School explained, “The governor understands we are moving toward a new definition of public education in Florida.” Vouchers that take public tax funds and bleed our public schools should not be the “new definition of public education in Florida”.

Last year more than 167,000 Florida students were granted vouchers at an annual cost of more than $1 billion. If we do not reign in Florida’s GOP Governor and legislature, there will be no future for public education in Florida. Tallahassee leadership needs to recognize Florida’s public schools as a priority and invest in the support needed for success, not funnel public school money to private voucher schools.

Returning to School in August – the new Abnormal

In the vacuum of leadership left by the Governor and lawmakers in Tallahassee, school boards across the state have been scrambling to figure out what school will look like this fall, both on campus and online. Schools have been mandated to operate in-person learning five days a week or potentially risk their school funding, but who is taking the risk of students and teachers into account?

Understanding the challenges posed by “distance learning” in the spring, it would have been wise to assemble a task force to address these issues and explore challenges and options for reopening. No action was taken and now school boards are pushing out start dates and trying to figure it out.

Florida was already ranked near the bottom, 45th out of 50 states, when it came to per student funding for public school education. Now schools must work to address the additional deficits the pandemic has exposed and ensure that students from lower-income families do not fall through the cracks.

During “distance learning” in April, the New York Times reported, “The absence rate appears particularly high in schools with many low-income students, whose access to home computers and internet connections can be spotty.” We need to ensure students have the technology and online access they need to learn, as well as address problems such as hunger, homelessness, violence inside and outside the home, and a host of other issues that add barriers to learning, both in this crisis and moving forward.

An Educator, a Parent, an Advocate

I come at this issue passionately as an educator, as a parent with two daughters in Seminole County Public Schools, and as a product of this very same school system. The parents and families I know decided to move or settle in Seminole County in large part because of our highly regarded public school systems. As an advocate for teachers and students, I want to ensure that public schools get the funding they need to help our teachers and students succeed.

I was honored this week to receive the endorsement of both the Orlando Sentinel and also the Young Democrats of Seminole County, but it was perhaps appropriate that my first endorsement came from 314 Action, a group that promotes STEM education. I was also honored to be endorsed by Seminole UniSERV the umbrella for teachers, support staff, and bus drivers throughout Seminole County.

As an adjunct professor at UCF where I teach cybersecurity, I am also a unionized member of the United Faculty of Florida at UCF, the National Education Association, the Florida Education Association, and the FL AFL-CIO.

I am proud to stand with teachers, students, and public schools and to advocate for:

  • Increased per-pupil funding for public schools
  • Removal of high-stakes testing requirements
  • Proper teacher pay and benefits
  • Educational employees’ right to collectively bargain
  • Accountability standards across all schools

We owe it to our children and the children of this and state to fight for the education they deserve.