A weekend interview with state Rep. Rick Kriseman
With redistricting foremost on its mind, the Florida Legislature heads back into session in January. That means committee meetings begin in scant weeks. Already, members have filed several education-related bills, but none as yet that turn as many heads as the major actions approved last year dealing with teacher contracts, vouchers and charter schools. State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, was recently named the ranking member of the House Education Innovation Subcommittee. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his expectations for the coming session.
Last year was one for really big change. I'm wondering what your expectations are for this year and how you hope to get there.
Honestly, with everything that happened last year, I'm not sure what other destructive things can be done by the Legislature and the Republican leadership to public education this year. I mean, we've degraded teachers through the Son of 6 bill, we've expanded vouchers, we've expanded and made it easier for charter schools to be opened and stay open with what I think is less oversight. I guess maybe the only thing they could do is raise the standards so high that we start flunking more students out. Maybe that's the plan. I don't know.
Is there a plan from your side to try to adjust things?
Well, I can tell you that as Democrats our concern has been all along, No. 1, we don't believe education is being appropriately and constitutionally funded in Florida. No. 2, we think that by solely focusing in on teachers and testing, we are not looking at the problem in a wholistic fashion, which is what we should be doing. Because you're not going to solve Florida's educational problems by looking at only one thing and trying to fix only one thing. It's broader than that.
Do you think the Democrats can accomplish anything this year?
Unfortunately, I suspect what we'll probably be trying to do again is stopping bad things to the best of our abilities. Because what we've seen in the last couple of sessions is there doesn't seem to be an appetite among Republicans to even consider our ideas and listen to our suggestions. There just seems to be, 'This is the idea. Either vote it up or vote it down. We don't really care what you think.'
Will the whole focus on redistricting make lawmakers be a little more conscious of what the public says, if they come in and say that they want or don't want something?
No, I don't think so. I think the arrogance that we've seen in particular in this last session doesn't give me any hope that there's going to be a greater emphasis placed on listening to the voters. I mean, we heard very loud and clear in the last election cycle, 'Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.' And certainly education, I believe, is a big part of job creation. And I don't think we saw a whole lot of legislation come forward that is going to create jobs and improve our educational system. Funding was cut. We cut funding to education. We cut funding to our universities. And when there was funding for infrastructure for schools, it went to charter schools. None of it went to public schools.
Are there any things that you think there might be common ground on? Perhaps more funding?
You know, I would hope there would be. I have not heard any ideas come forward. Part of the problem, I think, is the announcement of who are on the committees and who are the rankings for Democrats at least really just occurred. So the chairs of the various committees haven't had a lot of time to communicate with the ranking members. Hopefully they will. Unfortunately that doesn't always happen either, where there's good communication. I know that when I was the ranking member on Energy my first two years, when Bob Allen was the chair of the committee, Bob absolutely reached out to me and we had dialogue, which is what you would hope if your objective is to fashion bipartisan legislation. But that doesn't always happen.
For people who are watching this year to see what is going to happen next for education, it doesn't seem like you hold out much hope for them.
No, I don't. First off, I think in general the entire session will be dominated by redistricting. But over and above that, I just don't know. The big priorities of the Republican leadership were bringing back Senate Bill 6 in whatever fashion that was going to look like. They did that and they passed it. It was in expanding vouchers and expanding the percentage of credit. They did that. It was in expanding charter schools. They did that. Those were all the priorities expressed in the past couple of years. I don't know what's left for them other than to maybe place a greater emphasis back on FCAT again. I don't know.
I've heard about the idea to create education savings accounts. I've heard another one about the attempt to make the education commissioner be elected again rather than appointed. Are you hearing those? Are those big issues?
I did hear about the education commissioner and I'll be honest, sitting here today I don't really have a strong opinion on that. ... Will it have an earth-shattering impact on education? I don't think it will. But what I have seen in my five years has been a strategic plan to undermine public education, to neuter it so they are not performing in the way we would like to see so as to push the agenda of expansion of vouchers and charter schools and destroying the teachers union. I think that is what the agenda has been. If you look at the past five years and the policies that have been put forth, that I think it pretty clearly what the agenda has been. And unfortunately to the negative impact on our state's education, they have been successful.
Do you have any advice for people who are just watching the Legislature ... and want to have a voice, what they can do to be heard?
Yeah. They absolutely have to reach out to their representative, to the representatives in their delegation, and to the chairs of the various education committees and they need to express their opinions. They need to let them know what is important to them. If we're going to fix our schools, it isn't just the teachers. We've got to change the whole environment of the schools. There's no parental involvement, there's no discipline in the classrooms, there's not enough support staff in the classrooms. I mean, you can have the best teachers in the world, but if they're not spending all their time teaching and instead are distracted by disciplinary issues, are distracted by having to do other jobs because there aren't enough cafeteria workers or guidance counselors or curriculum specialists or behavioral specialists, it doesn't matter how good the teacher is. They're not going to be effective.
I appreciate you talking with me. You've just given a downer for the legislative session, except that maybe nothing will happen.
Well, sometimes nothing happening is a good thing.