1. Opinion

Column: The Hillsborough student walkouts are a reminder of the high stakes of the 1968 statewide teachers' strike

A nervous tension permeates the room. Students anxiously look toward each other, waiting for someone to make the first move. The substitute in the classroom demonstratively threatens each student with suspension for any forms of disruption. Suddenly, a quiet girl in the front row stands up, looks toward her classmates, and exclaims, "Let's go!"

Following her lead, the class stands in unison and walks out the door of their classroom and their school in a show of solidarity with the tens of thousands of teachers who, just a few days earlier, left their own classrooms in protest. This event constituted the country's first statewide teacher strike.

This scene, described in an oral history interview with Titusville High School alum Gary Cornwell relating his experiences in the 1968 statewide Florida teacher strike, has a striking similarity to the recent student-led walkouts demanding a pay raise for Hillsborough County teachers. In both cases, students vehemently voiced their support for their teachers in a state that places little value on education and the teaching profession.

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1968, more than 27,000 teachers and administrators across Florida mailed in their signed letters of resignation, effectively creating a crisis in education never before witnessed in the United States. The strike, however, did not occur spontaneously; rather, it stemmed from years of neglect to the state's education system from state and local politicians. Teachers also faced a continuous devaluing of their profession by politicians through a lack of pay and through a public that refused to acknowledge teaching as anything more than glorified babysitting.

By leaving their classrooms empty, teachers demanded improvements to the state's education funding structure as well as to their profession. A point of contention for teachers — then as now — centered on salaries, which lagged behind other states such as Alabama and Georgia, which in 1968 paid their teachers on average higher salaries than Florida.

Sadly, almost 50 years later, Florida's low wages continue to plague the state's teachers. Teachers in 1968 faced steep resistance from the public for going on strike, but nevertheless they stood resolute in their mission to fix education. They also found support from their students who, in counties across the state, walked out in solidarity with those tasked to educate them.

By showing their solidarity, these students faced suspension and in some cases criminal charges for truancy. Confronted with these penalties, why did they walk out? They did so because they understood, better than most adults, the hard work and dedication that goes into a profession that often suffers from a lack of support both in pay and in funding. By recognizing these aspects, students in 1968 and in 2017 made their intentions clear: They would support their teachers' efforts to address the problems of education in the state, no matter the consequences.

The latest Hillsborough County student walkouts speak to a long legacy of student activism in the state, but they should also serve as a cautionary tale for the Hillsborough County School Board. There are striking similarities between education and the teaching profession in 1968 and 2017.

Teachers in Florida continue to find their profession besieged by politicians who find it easier to blame teachers for education's problems than to address the severe failures in funding that have continued to damage education in the state. By not providing promised raises to Hillsborough's teachers, the School Board has illustrated a lack of respect and concern for those charged with educating Florida's youth.

There have been reports that some schools have decided to exact punishment in the form of in-school suspension against students who had the courage to stand up for their teachers. Instead of punishing these students, we should listen to them. If not, Florida could be heading down the same path it did in 1968.

Jody Noll is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Georgia State University. His dissertation is on the 1968 statewide Florida teacher strike.