Guest column | Shelley Kappeler

Parents, unions get low marks in teacher support

Nobody lives here or moved here because Florida is a hot bed of academic scholarship. Ditto for teaching in Florida. If you are a Florida public school teacher, unless you just arrived with the recently released fresh Florida tomatoes, you should realize you went into not-for-profit charity work.

I'm certified to teach, I just wasn't crazy about an organization dictating how much money I could make. So, I put those credentials in storage and went to work in the free market economy.

Still, I would like to thank superintendent Heather Fiorentino for her recent comments about substitutes. I do substitute teach on occasion and I definitely wouldn't want her to confuse me with some of her employees because she's paying me more.

As a substitute teacher with a college degree, I make more than the paraprofessional who is helping your child in class every day with reading. I am paid more than the school secretary and data entry clerk who handle all your confidential papers and greet you in the front office.

A student working the overnight shift at McDonald's makes more money than a part-time elementary cafeteria worker in Pasco County, thanks to the negotiated master step contract.

I support teachers; I just don't think teachers are doing enough to support their own cause. They have blindly left that to the unions. Politicians aren't going to help teachers.

Parents don't seem to care. They were obviously some of the voters in favor of Amendment 1, which all but gutted local government budgets.

They were among the commentators who say to teachers: Buck up. Things are tough for everyone. To them I say, not everyone is educating our future. Or is it the "educating" part that doesn't concern them?

Parents in Hillsborough County were outraged, not about their child's teacher's salary or classroom funding, but because subsidized aftercare and summer camp programs were scheduled for budget cuts. Unfortunately, that's what most parents think of a Florida education — one big baby-sitting service. That leaves the few involved parents floundering for some attention.

How bad is it? Have you seen the families flocking to the new charter school in Land O'Lakes? Here is a school that is offering families no permanent school, no playground, and ad-hoc classrooms in a rented space. They can say nothing about who will be on their faculty and they will not offer art or music, operate a media center or a clinic. With just hope in their backpacks, 424 kids are apparently willing to forgo the traditional public school for a school that has basically imagined a lot of promises.

Teachers will never get a better deal in this state without the support and backing of these parents who are leaving the public schools for charter schools, Florida Virtual School and simply their own home school.

Forty years ago, Florida teachers made history by going on strike. My mother was one of those teachers. She taught eighth-grade English at Fletcher Junior High in Duval County. In 1968, my mother was barely making $6,000 annually and per-child spending in Florida was $5.23. My mother was adamant that districts be treated fairly when it came to spending, that the Florida Legislature pony up the funding it had promised. She joined the strike.

The strike was short-lived. There was short-term relief for teachers. But parents did not support striking teachers. Many schools were kept open by business leaders and moms who came in as volunteers to run the schools as day-care centers, so other parents could continue to work. Parents couldn't see the larger picture unfold, only that their current 9-to-5 lives were being disrupted.

The strike had a long legacy in my family. My uncle, a teacher and fellow striker, could not find work the following September. He eventually moved to England and started American Community Schools, teaching an American curriculum for the children of families working overseas. Ironically, the strike forced him to teach in the free market and he ended up independently wealthy. My aunt was one of those parents who helped keep the schools open even though her brother and sister-in-law were both on the picket line. My mother got her job back after the strike.

Forty years later and little, it seems, has changed. Teacher unions still prove ineffective at motivating large scale change. School spending and teacher salaries in Florida lag behind the national average.

Recently, Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco (USEP) was quoted as saying that teachers are selfless and that "people take that for granted." Count the USEP as one of those groups taking teachers for granted.

What was the point of a poorly executed, middle-aged Goth fashion show on the last day of school when no one was watching? As a parent, I would have reacted positively if I had seen the entire staff of my child's school show up in force at the School Board meeting wearing their school spirit shirts, not black.

And had one teacher asked, as a parent, I would have shown up as well, in support of my 65 teachers who are indeed selfless and spoke about all they sacrifice for a $36,000 paycheck.

And if I were the union, I would be afraid if union membership started talking about withholding their dues instead of the district withholding step increases. Withholding dues for the year would amount to $589.25, which would about cover a teacher's step increase.

With several ballot initiatives affecting education this November, teacher unions will have a chance to prove their worth to teachers. Teachers need to look for equal support from parents and they also need to show parents their worth. If history is any indication, it is not unions that will carry teachers forward, but parents, working with teachers, who could eventually turn the tide for a good public education in Florida.

Shelley Kappeler lives in Land O'Lakes.

Parents, unions get low marks in teacher support 07/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 11, 2008 8:59pm]

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