LAND O'LAKES — In her 28 years with Pasco County schools, guidance counselor Monica Capabianco kept her focus on students.
This year, she's become keenly aware of politics.
Proposals in the Florida Legislature to rewrite retirement policies for state employees captured her attention. Shifts in the way the state would calculate pensions, among other possible changes, would take Capabianco's retirement pay from a decent $27,000 per year to a paltry $15,000.
"I would be on food stamps," she said. "I think I deserve better than that after dedicating my life to Florida kids."
In response, Capabianco is joining the swelling ranks of Pasco and Florida teachers who are no longer willing to take whatever the government does without a peep.
Whether they're opposed to a far-reaching revamp of teacher pay, evaluations and contracts, angry about efforts to subvert voters' intent with the 2002 class size amendment or frustrated by a continued redirection of education funding into private-school vouchers, many educators have decided to stand up and be heard — many for the first time.
The Republicans pushing these initiatives have said their intent is not to punish teachers, but to improve the quality of teachers in the classroom. But teachers like Capabianco say the measures will have the opposite effect.
They've stood in the rain, as Capabianco did last weekend, to berate Gov. Charlie Crist over some of the concepts that are likely headed to his desk. They've written letters, participated in protests, signed petitions.
More activism is coming, even though many education professionals have all but abandoned hope that the Republican-led Legislature will hear their pleas for reconsideration.
"You are hoping they are hearing what you are saying," said Capabianco, who has worked at Gulfside Elementary since it opened 26 years ago. "You're talking about peoples' lives here."
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between this year and past years, when other major attempts to overhaul the public school system didn't spark as much action from the rank and file who work in the schools.
United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb sees the distinctions between the years when then-governor Jeb Bush shepherded the first A-Plus education plan into existence and now.
Back then, Webb said, the rhetoric of "blame the teachers" came into vogue.
"But to be honest with you, I think teachers realized we had to make some changes," she said. "We wanted to be a part of it."
Now, though, Florida has been heralded as a model of school accountability. And instead of being thanked for helping with all the improvements and gains, teachers feel they're being blamed again and targeted for what many consider as punishment.
A bill that would take away professional service contracts for new teachers and base half their pay on student results, among other things, has gotten their particular ire. It doesn't help that the bill, sponsored by the same Sen. John Thrasher who pushed Jeb Bush's A-Plus plan as speaker of the House, has been flying through its committee stops with almost no acknowledgement of the teachers' efforts or concerns.
"They feel like they are not just being smacked in the face, but kicked and crushed," Webb said. And with their livelihoods on the line, she said, "they are scared and they are angry."
David Lammie, a ninth-year social studies teacher at Chasco Middle School, said he has grown tired of standing idly by while state lawmakers degrade his job and the system that educates Florida children.
He's a National Board certified teacher at an A-rated school in an A-rated school district, and he said he fails to see why lawmakers would paint what he does with the same broad brush they are using to describe underperforming teachers, schools and students.
"Many of us are doing a great job," he said. "There should be a targeted approach to specific needs. … I, as a teacher, feel the Legislature doesn't understand the complexity of the problem."
After reviewing all the intricacies, and the way the Legislature is handling them, Lammie decided to step up. He's been writing letters to lawmakers and preparing for pickets.
"We've kind of taken one for the team for years," Lammie said. "I tell my kids, government only works when you speak up for your rights. Well, I am speaking up for my rights and the rights of my students. I think teachers are really starting to find their voice."
West Zephyrhills Elementary third-grade teacher Lisa Mazza among them.
A teacher for more than 25 years, Mazza has already traveled to Tallahassee to urge lawmakers not to adopt some of the bills that she considers draconian, such as the one dealing with teacher pay, evaluations and contracts.
She organized a "wear red for education" day at her school last week and is putting together a letter-writing campaign on the pending legislation. After having seen her own children succeed in a strong school system, Mazza said, she's "just not sure where this attack on the system is coming from."
Changes moving through the Legislature could pit teachers against one another for a shrinking pot of money, she said, noting that Pasco teachers have gone without raises for two straight years and don't expect any for next year, either.
"I was always excited about being part of a school system. We had the best practices in place, and collaboration," she said. "For us to face all of that going away, that doesn't even make sense."
People have to organize, she said, or else face certain defeat.
Optimism isn't high. But still, teachers said, giving up can't be the option.
"We need to let them know … teachers are Republicans, we're Democrats. We're Americans," Capabianco said. "And this is about kids and what is best for them."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.