A weekend interview with Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black
The election of Gov. Rick Scott has prompted many conversations around Florida school districts as to whether teachers unions and the things they stand for are endangered species. Scott's rhetoric has focused ideas such as weeding out bad teachers, eliminating many employment protections, scaling back some benefits such as pensions. Some union leaders have started talking compromise. Others plan to fight back. Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her views about unions, politics and Florida's future.
What is the future for Florida teachers and Florida teachers unions? ... Is there a right way to approach things? Is the day of the teacher union in the old way we know it gone?
The day of union activism as people may conjure up mentally from the industrial age, I think that is gone. The role of the union has obviously changed. But the main role is to advocate for the workers. ... Every county is different and every county has different needs and different student populations. That's why we continue to fight for local control. Because we believe the citizens of the community and the students we serve know bests the needs that they have.
It's a sad state to me, though, that unions are continuing to have to fight for basic working conditions. By that I mean a duty free lunch. Or the right to have time built into your day to create lesson plans and be prepared. It would be nice if we didn't need unions. But unions are the great unifiers and organizers and the ones who fight for justice and the rights for the working class. Apparently through the conversations that are being had and the proposed documents that are coming out of the transition team and the ideas that are surfacing, it does seem to be an attack on unions. And the unions that we are talking about are teachers in the classrooms.
Are they really? What percentage of teachers do you have as members that actually pay and participate?
PCTA membership is at 53.5 percent.
That's not everybody. It's a lot. But doesn't it need to be better?
Oh, absolutely. That's one of the challenges that unions face in the state of Florida and a right to work state. You don't have to be a member of the union, but you benefit from all of the issues that are resolved through the bargaining process. ... Of course every union across the state of Florida needs to be stronger. Unfortunately it takes something like this, the radical ideas coming out of Tallahassee, to help people understand why they need to be part of a collective body for the greater good.
Do you think if they take away something like what they call tenure it will gut what you have? Because then you're bargaining over something they can impose with no real leverage anymore.
Well, that is a real misunderstanding that people have with the word 'tenure.' Teachers don't have tenure. What they have is the right to due process or the right to a fair dismissal, if you will. And that's all we're asking for -- the right to recruit, retain and the right to a fair dismissal, a fair hearing, a voice in the process. In an ideal situation in the state of Florida, every employee would have that right, not just in education. In every business. You shouldn't be able to be terminated without being able to state your case.
People make mistakes. There are situations when maybe people are placed in the wrong position. ... In many cases a teachers doesn't have a say in the position they've been assigned. I think that's where some of the conflict comes from. But this whole idea of tenure and a lifetime guarantee of a job or a career is false. There are so many stop gaps in place. Teachers are checked every step of the way. If the process is followed, there shouldn't be a problem.
It seems like they're taking control of the discussion and the language to the point where they say, We're in the business of education for the students, not the teachers. And I've heard the corollary of, The unions are not in it for the students. They're in it for the teachers. I'm sure you've heard that at one point or another. What do you make of that?
I have heard that. Every teacher I know is just looking for the right tools and conditions to help support the teaching and learning and the students they are provided with. It's disappointing and it's shameful, actually, that legislators who would lead that conversation, or members of the business community, will turn it into an attack on unions. It shouldn't be a win-lose situation like that. ... Every teacher union I've ever spoken with puts the students first. We know that our working conditions are the students' learning conditions. So if teachers aren't standing up for the students, then I don't know who will.
It seems like the conversation is focused on what we can do to make teachers better. At the same time, you hear teachers talk about what they can do to get to the place where they feel like they are respected. Are we at cross purposes here where the things they want to accomplish ... comes across as an insult to people ... and instead of feeling motivated they feel insulted?
Not only insulted but I think ... it defeats the person's feelings. They've dedicated a lifetime to learning and expanding the mind. And there are those out there that want to create chaos and bring conflict because it brings a great story. If you ask parents in your neighborhood, they will tell you they have great trust in the public school system. And so it's come to the attention of a loud group of people that the public school system, that has been nonprofit, there's a great deal of money to be made there. I think that's the big push for privatization. ... It's really shameful that a group of leaders are trying to turn us back to the days when we were just getting started with the working conditions for the middle class, if you will.
Is there a middle ground? Does there need to be some sort of new evaluation system, new contracting or certification system?
I haven't met a teacher who appreciates the current evaluation system that we have. Here in Pinellas we have worked with our administration to develop a new evaluation system that's not so subjective. It is being piloted in the schools that are under the differentiated accountability model. But I think it's important to look at what that means. ... There is room for improvement. There is room for growth. We can bring people back together and look at what is working and what's not working.
But you're right. Unions need to change, as do school systems. The children today bring more challenges than we've ever seen before. And we need to adapt and adjust. This whole adversarial idea of the union fighting the school district or fighting the employer, that does draw great attention. It writes a great media piece. However, there are those of us that believe that through collaboration and trying to find common ground when we all have the same goal is better for public confidence. ...