Cheap and hostile is not the way to attract teachers in Florida

How unhappy are Florida teachers? Well, in Pinellas County they think it's more important to fight for classroom flexibility rather than getting a little closer to the national pay scale for teachers.
What is the issue in Pinellas County classrooms that have teachers unwilling to sign a union contract? The head of the teacher’s association says pay is not the main problem - it is the working conditions imposed by various regulation. (Washington Post)
What is the issue in Pinellas County classrooms that have teachers unwilling to sign a union contract? The head of the teacher’s association says pay is not the main problem - it is the working conditions imposed by various regulation. (Washington Post)
Published December 3

So teachers in Pinellas County are at somewhat of an impasse in contract negotiations.

For this type of news, the initial response is usually ho.

Followed emphatically by hum.

Related: Pinellas teachers turn down a raise to press for better working conditions

It’s true, this headline could not be less stunning. First of all, it’s the nature of unions and management. It’s also predictable in a state that views public schools as disdainfully as the politicians of Florida do.

So why fret about it this time?

Two reasons:

No. 1, this is not your typical salary dispute. The teachers are not raising a stink about a proposed 2.55 percent pay bump. While teachers have walked off the job in states across the nation this year to protest dwindling paychecks, the union in Pinellas is more concerned about bureaucratic demands.

No. 2, this is only nominally about teachers. At its heart, this dispute has more to do with you, your children and the neighborhood schools your taxes support.

What’s really at issue is classroom autonomy.

For the better part of two decades, the know-it-alls in Tallahassee have made a crusade out of reforming schools. They’ve changed curriculum — repeatedly. They’ve demanded more standardized tests — and then demanded fewer. They’ve made a battle cry out of freedom and innovation at charter schools while at the same time handcuffing the great majority of public schools.

The result is they’ve made schools less appealing to parents.

And they’ve made the job less appealing to teachers.

“Just let teachers teach. It’s the reason they get in the business. No one becomes a teacher because they have any illusion about getting rich,’’ said Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. “The problem is they’ve taken all of the joy out of teaching. All (teachers) are being trained to do is teach what’s on the tests, teach what’s going to raise the school’s test numbers.

“How about teaching kids what they need to get along in life? A kid can raise his hand and ask a perfectly legitimate question about the subject, but if it’s not covered on the test the teacher isn’t given the time to veer off in any other direction.’’

Although his teachers’ association is at odds with the county concerning bureaucracy, time demands and other work conditions, Gandolfo says Pinellas has generally been better than most districts.

It’s the blind adherence to Tallahassee’s mandates that is causing problems. And those difficulties are not likely to get better anytime soon.

Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has championed a bevy of misguided reforms, is expected to be named the state’s new education commissioner.

Related: Richard Corcoran is likely the next education commissioner

And incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva recently named Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, to chair the chamber’s education committee. As the Orlando Sentinel recently pointed out, Sullivan is a home-schooled, 27-year-old who has no degree and appears to have barely attended any college classes.

What qualifies her for one of the most powerful positions in state education?

Oh, I’m guessing the fact that she will do whatever party leadership tells her to do when it comes to diverting education funds into the hands of private operators.

Look, you have no obligation to empathize with teachers in this contract dispute in Pinellas County. They chose this profession, and they are free to leave if they no longer enjoy it.

But here’s what you might care about:

There are more and more teacher vacancies, and that means classes are getting larger and larger. Experienced teachers have had enough, and there is no stampede of applicants to replace them.

When you look at it that way, the problem doesn’t seem so ho-hum.

Contact John Romano at [email protected] Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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