Thousands of teachers march on Florida Capitol, express outrage over school funding

James Call
Tallahassee Democrat
Walton Sun

TALLAHASSEE — Thousands of teachers march on Florida Capitol, express outrage over school funding

Teachers, parents and their supporters brought downtown Tallahassee to a standstill Monday as they protested what they said has been a systematic attack on public education dating to the 1990s.

Thousands of protesters in red T-shirts, some carrying signs that said “I shouldn’t have to marry a sugar daddy to teach," marched from the campus of Florida State University to the state Capitol, blocking traffic in the heart of downtown.

Some boarded buses in South Florida at 3 a.m. to be in Tallahassee for the 1:30 p.m. Tallahassee demonstration organized by the Florida Education Association (FEA).

The march and rally, featuring national labor unions, was designed to focus public attention on what teachers claim is the Legislature’s failure to adequately fund public schools.

Thousands of teachers, school support staff, parents and students rallied at the Capitol Monday to demand better funding for public schools.

Local educators were among those to show their support.

Okaloosa County Education Association reported 16 union members attended the education rally for better teacher pay. Meanwhile, Walton County Education Association President Kari Ann Kinkey also traveled to Tallahassee, while the school system reported 35 teachers were absent. In Santa Rosa County the teachers' union rep could not be reached by the Daily News, but the district reported 24 teachers were absent.

“There are 36 high schools with 1,000 students or more that fail to offer physics classes because they can’t find certified teachers. And one out of eight English classes in this state are taught by uncertified teachers,” said Fedrick Ingram, FEA president, before leading marchers up a half-mile hill to the Capitol.

Florida ranks among the bottom 10 states nationally in funding for students, with education spending below pre-recession levels when accounting for inflation. And the state is 26th in the nation for starting pay, according to the National Education Association.

The low spending coupled with high-stakes testing of students, and the lack of consistent pay increases, has led to more than 3,500 vacant teaching positions across the state.

“We’ve shown up, year after year, hoping things will get better and all that has happened is our classrooms got bigger, we lost our librarians and school nurses, and it has come to this, where we say enough is enough,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, who marched with the teachers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is determined to make the 2020 session the “Year of the Teacher.” DeSantis has proposed spending $603 million to raise the state’s starting teacher pay, and another $300 million in bonuses for highly effective teachers.

"Around 101,000 classroom teachers will benefit from the raise in minimum salary out of over 173,000 full time teachers in Florida," DeSantis spokesman Helen Ferre said in an email. DeSantis "is strongly supporting Florida’s classroom teachers, particularly those educators who are younger and working in schools that face greater challenges. To suggest otherwise is an unfortunate disconnect with reality."

But legislative leaders have been skeptical of the plan: “When you put it as a one-size-fits-all then you can create some practical problems as well as some inequities,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, when asked about the plan.

But teachers call DeSantis’ plan a “good start.” They are seeking a 10% across-the-board pay raise for all classroom teachers and school staff. And they are emboldened by the ability of teachers in Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and West Virginia to pressure lawmakers in the past year to increase spending on schools.

“And today it is here in Tallahassee,” said Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, about teachers' successful efforts to pressure lawmakers elsewhere.

“This generation of teachers are saying, let’s do a reset,” Weingarten said as thousands of red-shirt wearing teachers started to line up by their school districts and grabbed water bottles for the uphill trek to the Florida Capitol.

“They are saying, let’s do what our constitution said to do. Let’s do what the Florida people said they want to do: Fund a high-performing public education system,” she added.

Led by a police escort, a steady stream of teachers flowed out of the city's Civic Center and up the hill to the Capitol. They filled the lawn and spilled out into the nearby roadway.

"It is a moral outrage that you do not give equal pay to those who work in public education in this state," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the rally's keynote speaker.

"This is not a political issue; this is a moral issue," he added. "How can you have a heart for the children if you won’t pay the teachers and pay those who work in the schools. It is time for Florida to stand up and stand out and represent what is best in this country."