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Pasco County teachers, school workers take battle to Tallahassee

Kenny Blankenship just had to speak out.

Florida lawmakers were considering a bill to require Algebra II as one of many new high school graduation requirements. Blankenship, a social studies teacher at Land O'Lakes High, couldn't agree.

"I don't think that's going to help our graduation rates," he said. "What about our kids who aren't going to go to college?"

He wasn't talking to his students. He was giving lawmakers his point of view during their weekly meeting of the House Pre-K-12 Policy Committee in Tallahassee.

During Florida's annual legislative session, a group of Pasco teachers and other school district employees make sure their presence is felt, and their voices heard, as the Legislature takes up bills that could change the way schools do business. About four or five Pasco schools employees make the Tallahassee trek each week.

"Everyone doesn't want to think education is political, but it is," said Glennda McAllister, a special education teacher on assignment to the district office. "They're the ones making the rules."

The United School Employees of Pasco helps the teachers get to Tallahassee. It pays for substitutes to fill in and covers the cost of traveling.

But it can't provide the passion of the people who take time away from their jobs, families and personal lives to speak up.

"I just keep standing up for what I think is right, what I think is the good and honorable thing to do for my students and my friends who are in the teaching profession," Blankenship said. "They need to hear from us."

Even when it seems like they don't want to.

"I don't think I was heard," Blankenship said. "I have yet to have any of them ask me what I do in my classroom or what I think ought to be done at the state level."

McAllister agreed that it can be disheartening to talk with lawmakers about an important issue only to have them go to committee and act as if the conversation never happened.

"But I'm fighting for my kids because it matters," she said.

Lawmakers candidly acknowledged that they don't always find the messages that educators bring to them helpful. Mostly, that's when they come with union talking points and won't budge from them.

"It becomes an information overload," said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, chairman of the House Pre-K-12 Policy Committee.

Better, he said, is when the educators bring personal information from the classrooms that many lawmakers otherwise wouldn't hear. Such testimony carries a lot of weight in committee deliberations, Legg said.

"Sometimes that makes or breaks a bill, when groups like that come up," he said.

Senate president pro tempore Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who's been around the Capitol for 15 years, said he welcomes each teacher's visit.

"It enlightens me what they're having to deal with, with the few dollars they have," said Fasano, who dropped out of high school at 15 and got his GED more than a decade later. "I am definitely not an expert in this field, and I rely upon the advice that these teachers give me."

McAllister was hopeful that the teachers' message is making a difference. She noted the Senate's proposed budget would not cut public education any further — a far cry from talk that spending would go down another 20 percent.

"We just asked them to not pass any more legislation that would cost us any more. … Leave us alone so we can keep what we have," she said. "I think that they're starting to notice."

The teachers hope to keep whatever momentum they have going forward well past the legislative session.

"We plan to be more proactive and let them know what issues are affecting us throughout the year, and not just during the session," Blankenship said.

Legg welcomed such an effort.

"There is more of a genuineness during nonsession time," he said, adding that he'd gladly visit schools — preferably informally — to see how things are going on a daily basis.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco County teachers, school workers take battle to Tallahassee 03/29/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 29, 2009 9:02pm]
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