Column: 50 years after walkout, teachers still seek respect

Published Feb. 20, 2018

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 teacher walkout in Florida, which was called to force politicians in Tallahassee to pay attention to deplorable conditions in public schools. In desperation, tens of thousands of teachers walked out of their classrooms in a fight, ultimately successful, over adequate funding for public education.

That fight echoes loudly today.

Once again, Tallahassee has failed to focus on improving conditions in public schools and chooses instead to undermine them. Legislators' inaction is evident in Florida's ranking at the bottom of the states in funding for public education. Their inaction is poignant and infuriating in the wake of another school massacre. They have refused for seven years to increase funding for school security through the Safe Schools program. They have allowed Florida to rank last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in funding for mental health services. They have tried to make it easier to bring more guns on campus — the last thing our schools need.

Perhaps now a shamed Legislature will provide some of the things our children so desperately need: mental health care, funding for more school resource officers, research-based anti-bullying and after-school programs, and more school counselors with time to counsel students and not just proctor standardized tests.

What is it going to take today for Tallahassee politicians to set aside their misplaced priorities and act sensibly to help Florida's children and support our teachers?

Teaching and working in our public schools has long been a proud profession.

But today Florida is facing a teacher shortage. It's no wonder that it's difficult to hire and retain enough teachers. In recent years they have been shamed and blamed for issues that are outside of their control. They have seen their retirement funding reduced. Pay raises come in the form of bonuses based on bizarre criteria like standardized test scores in college. Any hope of job stability has been taken away by forcing them to work on year-to-year contracts.

It's amazing that so many are still on the job. Every day, more than 300,000 school employees show up not knowing if they will have supplies, support or a safe environment but still hoping to make a difference.

Year after year, the Legislature shows up obsessed with yet another scheme to privatize our public schools and allow their business associates to profit under the guise of ''school choice.''

This year, House Speaker Richard Corcoran is determined to create yet another legacy voucher program that he claims is for the victims of bullying. This nonsensical voucher program would take taxpayer money out of our public schools and provide vouchers for bully victims to go to private or religious schools that are not even required to report violence or bullying. It does nothing to address violence in our schools or prevent ''bullies'' from targeting another student.

The shame is that the real goal of the speaker's program is not to help students. It is to create a mechanism to tap into the state's biggest source of funding: the state sales tax. Buried in two House bills are provisions to allow state sales taxes to be hijacked by so-called scholarship funding organizations for private school tuition.

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Use of the sales tax in this way would be an unprecedented scheme for earmarking money — the only program that would allow consumers at the retail level to direct sales taxes they owe for purposes other than depositing it into the state treasury.

The end game in all of this, which will surely become a program named after the speaker, is creation of a universal voucher program that would allow all students to take taxpayer money to attend unaccountable private schools at the expense of our public schools.

You can help. Take a minute today to pray for the parents and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Take a minute to think about the teachers there, who created shelters in their classrooms last week, as well as those who chose to walk out in 1968 because they were trying to protect their students. Remember a teacher who made a difference in your life.

Joanne McCall is president of the Florida Education Association.