A weekend interview with Brandt Robinson, Dunedin High School teacher SB 736 lawsuit plaintiff
Two weeks ago the Florida Education Association and six teachers sued the Florida Department of Education over the implementation of SB 736, the first bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott. The union contends that the controversial new law, which changes contracts, evaluations and pay for Florida teachers, is unconstitutional. Dunedin High School social studies teacher Brandt Robinson is one of the named plaintiffs. Robinson joined the suit because he worries for the future of teaching and public education in the state. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his concerns. (Associated Press photo)
I am interested in your participation in this lawsuit over SB 736. How did you get involved in that?
I was asked by Marshall Ogletree, who is the executive director of PCTA, to be one of the plaintiffs. I can't speak to why, ultimately, I was asked ... but I think it has something to do with the fact that I've been very involved over the last few years going back to the SB 6 controversy. In addition, my wife and I have been training new teachers for the last five years and we are very committed to teaching and learning. I think all that contributed to the decision.
Wny did you agree?
I agreed because I realized the consequences of what SB 736 will do to my profession and ultimately the effect it will have on teaching and learning, and on our ability to attract the best and the brightest to the profession.
When you talk to these new teachers, are they telling you what their concerns are? Or are these just your concerns based on what you have seen over the years?
I think that it's just a combination of the reaction that all teachers are having to the last several years of what people might call, quote, reforms. And the general sense that a lot of the people behind the efforts don't really have an appreciation or understanding for what teachers do every day, but what it's really going to take to improve the quality of education.
Tell me what you think are some of the most egregious parts of SB 736.
Well, the first thing I want to do is just give a little backdrop about recent history. If you remember, when states applied for Race to the Top, the federal education grant, one of the preconditions was that states had to demonstrate that they had adequately funded public education. Then-Gov. Crist actually had to apply for a waiver so that Florida could even be considered because we had not demonstrated adequate funding. The reason I bring up the Race to the Top grant is because the controversy really started at that point. It was then followed by the controversial SB 6. All the while, of course, Hillsborough County with the Gates grant is demonstrating the type of collaboration that is really necessary. So the question is, if the Hillsborough public school system can model through collective bargaining, if they can model the kinds of reforms that are necessary, why did people in the state Legislature continue to try and push something that ultimately violates this fundamental tenet, collective bargaining, that's been in place for decades in the state? Teachers and our union representatives and districts have in good faith for decades collectively bargained. This is a way of work that really models a process that our students need to see and just across the bay we have a district that's been modeling this is a way that works, this is the way to do it. And so one of the big things that concerns many of us about SB 736 is that it takes away this history of collective bargaining.
I've heard some lawmakers talk about how they felt they tried to put in reforms -- which I know some people don't like that word -- and then watched as the teachers unions batted them down, merit pay being one of them. They saw districts make rules so hard to comply with that no one would get merit pay even though it was clear merit pay was what their intent was.
Well, there is a big problem with the whole concept of merit pay. Because at the heart of the assumptions about merit pay is the concept of merit and who's worthy of pay. Again, the districts and especially the state have not demonstrated a consistent commitment to adequately funding public education. So the concept of merit, really, for us it comes down to the idea of effective evaluation of teachers. One of the fundamental arguments at the heart of the argument by state legislators is that we have a vast amount of poor teachers out there, when in fact our district and most districts in Florida have, and have had in place, an evaluation system at the local level and of course at the heart of that, the evaluation system came out of the collective bargaining process. There's never been anything difficult about evaluating teachers as long as administrators and schools do what they have been trained to do for years.
In other words, you can easily uncover a teacher who either doesn't belong in the profession, which is a tiny minority, or more teachers who would just be struggling or challenged to improve themselves. We all want to get better. That's one of the sad ironies about all of this is that SB 6, and then SB 736, really doesn't have at its heart the desire to improve and reform education the way that it needs to be done. Again, I allude to the Hillsborough County model. I strongly believe that this an effort to profiteer and this is an effort to take further advantage of public schools. It's just not modeling the right way to, quote, reform public education.
Do you think that the result is going to be breaking down the public school system?
Well, I think when people in the public hear the word 'privatization,' they think somehow they think about people coming into the public schools and turning them into private schools. That's not the approach. It's a much more insidious approach. It's to be able to, as it becomes more challenging for schools to meet the needs of increasingly struggling students ... that opens up the door for all kinds of lucrative contracts, for companies to come in, whether it be test taking companies or curriculum development. At the heart of it, what's missing is the kind of collaborative efforts by the professionals who are in the trenches every day. And that does take money. Again, I bring you back to the irony that many of the people in the Legislature who have been behind these, quote, reforms, they have been elected on campaign slogans about big government. But these are the same people that were willing to take the Race to the Top money from the federal government, which, interestingly enough, did help to protect jobs for teachers, did help to offset some of the problems that we're having.
The other thing I want to point out is that SB 736 is an unfunded mandate. While this is purporting to bring about reforms in education, this was accompanied by the governor's budget which cut education by $700 million. So my biggest concern is that, as someone who trains new teachers, I am driving first and foremost, as my colleagues are, by a commitment to teaching and learning. And we see the connection between these kinds of efforts and how much more difficult it's going to be to really meet the needs of kids each day.
Do you think that teachers will start walking away from the profession? And if they do, where will they go? Because it seems like a lot of other states are doing very similar things.
I think that's a really important question, because we know that, No. 1, 50 percent of teachers leave the profession after the first five years. I wish the public had a better understanding of that. The attrition rate for teachers has always been well known. And many people can debate the reasons for that, but the fact is it's a pretty consistent trend. That says something right there. ... It's going to make it more difficult because when people say, Can I make a living, and I'm a 24- or 25-year-old teacher and I either want to come to Florida or I'm in Florida and I want to be a teacher? Can I start a family? Can I pay my bills and give what it takes to be a teacher? In any environment it's challenging enough.
What about for you? How long have you been a teacher?
It's my 15th year of teaching, my 14th in Pinellas County, and all of those have been at Dunedin High School.
Do you think it will change what you want to do, or what you will do?
Again, most people who get involved in education really want that to be their career. I will certainly continue. I love my school. I love my students. But I do want to say that one of the ironies is that, with the economic situation being what it is, I think some in the state Legislature realize they can take advantage of the fact that many people don't have a place to turn. But that's true for many workers in the economy right now. We shouldn't treat anybody that way, especially public employees. Public school teachers have the trust of the citizens of the state to do a job that is at the heart of the democratic process. And it's just a shame that we're not modeling a commitment to treating people in a way that both makes it possible for them to make a living but also alludes to their professionalism and their ability to be at the heart of these reforms. Because ... very few public educators actually have been at the table for all of these legislative actions.
So you think that bringing this back for additional discussions with these same lawmakers would make a difference in the end?
Lawmakers do an essential job for us. They are our representatives. But when it comes to making laws, you want people at the table who know what is best for kids. Again, Hillsborough County is sort of the ugly stepchild in all this because they have modeled that they are doing this. The outcome, while many say it is not perfect yet, it is still a work in progress, but it is pretty groundbreaking what they have been able to do over there in Hillsborough County. It has required excellent leadership, but it has required bringing everyone to the table so that you can validate all parties and you can model the type of accountability that comes with the collective bargaining process. And so the fact that Hillsborough County is doing this right under the nose of these other efforts must be a source of embarassment because why didn't we follow the lead of the county that was already doing this and actually got an exception from SB 736 and from Race to the Top?
Do you think the Legislature should be the ones that are concerned about that? Or maybe the school districts that aren't doing what Hillsborough is doing? Because it is a local initiative.
It's true. They are local initiatives. So the Legislature should be aware of what the needs are for each district and they should allow districts to continue using the collective bargaining process. The issue with the Gates grant is ultimately about the resources that are necessary to make it happen. And again, because the state has not demonstrated adequate funding for public education, they are trying to have it both ways. Because Hillsborough County has been able to have the resources to do this, they have been able to demonstrate it does have a lot to do with making a commitment. Because those resources go to training. They go to the resources that the professionals have been able to come up with. They also go to developing a peer review model, which is really at the heart of this. ... So the state Legislature needs to recognize we already have the parties. We just need to make a commitment to the process that will bring the results that we're starting to see in Hillsborough County, as opposed to trying to mandate it with a stick that doesn't validate the collective bargaining process.
Do you get to use any of this stuff while you're teaching? Can you use this as lessons for your students at all?
I always tell my students that I am a teacher not a preacher. I always tell my students I love you if you are a Democrat and I love you if you are a Republican, and that my job as an educator is to make sure you make good decisions in life and you don't hurt other people along the way. So I don't proselytyze in my classroom. I don't talk about my involvement in this case and I don't talk about my personal opinions. But the issue at the heart of this, with regard to collective bargaining, with regard to reforms, we talk about it all the time, especially in my sociology class. We talk about what would be an ideal school system, what would be an ideal school year, what would be and ideal school day for you. What would you need from teachers. So of course there's relevance that goes to any number of aspects of our society.