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Florida teacher leaders predict depleting ranks in wake of HB 7055

The measure would decertify teacher unions with membership below 50 percent of eligible employees, among other provisions.
Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo at a February rally opposing HB 7055. [Jeffrey S. Solochek]
Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo at a February rally opposing HB 7055. [Jeffrey S. Solochek]
Published Mar. 6, 2018

House Speaker Richard Corcoran celebrated the passage of his sweeping K-12 policy bill, the 207-page HB 7055, with a statement cheering a "great day for education in Florida."

"Each and every child deserves to feel safe at school. No child should ever have to fear for their safety as soon as they step into the classroom," Corcoran stated, referring to the measure's new tax-credit scholarship for students who feel bullied in their public schools.

"With safety and security as our mission, the Florida House will continue to be the most pro-student, pro-parent, pro-education House in history. We will – and we have – taken on any interest, endured any slander, and broken down barriers to ensure every child has access to a world class education."

The release listed several more bill highlights — including some that did not make it through to the final version (such as the return to paper testing for most state language arts and math exams) — making clear just how many iterations and issues the bill dealt with on its way to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.

Teacher leaders didn't share in the enthusiasm, though.

In social media and interviews, they blasted the latest legislation as even worse than the 2017 bill (HB 7069) that remains the subject of legal challenges by several school districts.

They pointed to a provision that could lead to decertification of their unions as one of many items that might cause their  profession to dwindle in Florida.

"A teacher shortage is looming, big time, and it's not because of this one issue," said Mike Gandolfo, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president. "It's been coming for years."

Gandolfo and others suggested that the "Hope Scholarship" for bullied students is simply the latest move by Florida lawmakers to transfer funding from public to private education, harming a key foundation of the nation.

It adds to their laundry list of other actions, dating back to SB 736 in 2011, not to mention the current proposal to arm certain school employees through a new school safety initiative still brewing in the final days of session.

Such actions compound an already difficult work environment, said Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements. And the end result could be much like that in Indiana, where lawmakers have taken similar steps, she said.

"They cannot fill their seats in the colleges of education, and the quality of new teachers has greatly declined," Clements said. "I don't see anything different happening in Florida."

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, saw things very starkly: Educators, students and parents came to their Legislature with clear points, and got rolled for politics. Key lawmakers showed their emotions, said they sympathized, but at the end of the day followed their plan.

"Our legislators who say they want to hear our voices don't care," Fusco said. "They just do what they want. They completely showed that public education doesn't matter."

Of course, it can't be overstated that the current Republican leadership and its laser-like focus on school choice has not sat well with the unions for a long time. The Florida Education Association has been one of the biggest hurdles to the plan, suing (and usually losing) all along the way.

If there are political foes in Florida, the FEA and the GOP leadership are in the mix.

And that's what FEA president Joanne McCall said will continue to happen, regardless of HB 7055 or any other plan that emerges. Some time, McCall said, the Legislature will over play its hand.

"This is a political attack, and that's all it is," McCall said. "But that's all right. We'll survive to see another day. We were here long before they were."