Treat teachers better and all will benefit Chronicle Editorial / March 30, 2017

HE ISSUE: Legislative meddling in schools continues to disgust.

OUR OPINION: If lawmakers care to properly address education issues, radical but simple shift needed.

For Floridians, it’s a truism: If you work in the Sunshine State, you get paid in sunshine.

But in a world where entry-level jobs often require multiple years of experience and homeownership is out of reach for many formerly middle-class workers, state legislators are seeing evidence that among some of the state’s most crucial professions, sunshine doesn’t hold the value it once did.

They just don’t want to acknowledge where that evidence leads (so we’re going to hold their hands).

The problem is particularly acute in schools, where districts across the state are starved for instructors.

As you nurse your coffee this morning, school district staff are bundled up in the Northeast trying to sell bright-eyed, winter-weary youths on year-round warmth and easy access to beaches. It’s become an annual pilgrimage for the district, and last year it wasn’t enough: As of this writing, the district has 42 open instructional positions and 16 open support positions.

Even an optimist would reasonably conclude it won’t be enough this year, either.

Citrus schools are not alone. In February, the Orlando Sentinel examined the issue of teacher shortages in Orange County, where the district has nearly 80 teacher vacancies despite hiring in excess of 1,800 teachers. In doing so, it interviewed Palm Beach Superintendent Robert Avossa, whose district saw 40 teachers from Florida Atlantic University enter classrooms this year.

“I need 1,500,” he told the paper.

In Hillsborough, nonprofit government monitor Florida Watchdog pins the teacher deficit at approximately 500.

Around the state, the story is the same. This invites an obvious question: Why the shortage?

Newspaper investigations and state and independent analyses agree on one common cause: The number of college students who want to go into teaching has dropped precipitously, even as university enrollment has increased.

To find out why that might be, let’s examine some Chronicle reportage from January, when we interviewed teachers and administrators to ask that very question:

“I used to have six or seven of my kids every year say they wanted to be a teacher. That stopped happening,” Citrus County School Board member Sandy Counts said then. “The conditions in the classroom are not a pleasant experience any more.”

Further insights gleaned from those interviews:

Teaching generally does not pay well. That disincentive is further compounded by the budget realities many districts face, which see teachers purchasing supplies for their classrooms out of their own pockets.

Standardized testing has removed creativity from the classroom. Furthermore, teachers’ pay raises are tied to student testing performance, even in classes such as physical education where students do not take standardized tests.

In the past five years, state lawmakers have removed tenure, which means teachers with seniority no longer have built-in job protection.

Teachers are no longer held in high regard by students and parents. Educators say teachers are blamed when students do poorly.

“It’s not like it was when we went to school, when teachers had control in their classroom,” Assistant Superintendent Mike Mullen told us.

Pause for a moment and consider Mullen’s statement: If teachers are not in control in their classrooms, who is? Hint: It’s not the students either.

Increasingly, it is state lawmakers, whose desire to exert control over the state’s teachers and schools seems secondary only to their desire to be re-elected.

With that thought, let’s examine three recent headlines:

“Florida legislators shift proposals from teacher pay raises to bonuses,” Naples Daily News, March 15.

Regular readers of this space are doubtless familiar with the state’s Best and Brightest Scholarship program, which claims to reward the state’s highest-performing teachers with one-time bonuses. For those who don’t recall, the program dangled the promise of the bonuses in front of teachers who met two criteria: They had to have scored in the 80th percentile or better on either the SAT or ACT test in the year they took it; and they had to have been rated highly effective by their school district the previous year. Incoming teachers needed only the test scores to qualify.

The Daily News story focused on the fact that Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, decided to drop a $200 million proposal for teacher pay increases in favor of expansion of the bonus program. Along with that, he wants to loosen eligibility criteria for the bonuses.

What could possibly be his justification?

“I think we should be rewarding teachers who show a track record of doing well,” the paper quotes him as saying. “We shouldn’t be rating them on how they performed on a given day.”

You know a good way to reward employees who consistently do well over a period of time and who continue to improve? Raises!

But we would be remiss to not mention the fact that the state stands to spend significantly less on Best and Brightest funding than the $200 million proposed for raises. In the most recent state budget, the program received $47 million. That funding is not promised year to year. This is a shell game intended to fool naive citizens into thinking legislators are committed to education as they slash funding for schools, and it comes at the expense of teachers the state cannot afford to keep losing.

“Bill to limit job guarantees for annual contract teachers advances in Florida House,” Tampa Bay Times, March 23.

HB 373, which has gotten favorable referrals in committee and has a sister bill sitting in the Senate, is summarized thus by the House: “Prohibits district school board from awarding annual contract for instructional personnel under certain circumstances; prohibits district school board from altering or limiting its authority to award or not award annual contract; provides applicability.”

That is the state taking bargaining authority away from local districts, making it harder for those localities to retain effective teachers valued by their school systems and their communities. How is this supposed to help Florida’s students? How is this supposed to help Florida’s teachers? How is this supposed to help Florida’s schools?

“Senate delays testing bill amid GOP rift,” News Service of Florida, March 27.

To quote is enough: “Republican divisions on standardized testing temporarily scuttled a bill aimed at cutting back on the number of exams students face in public schools.”

The measure in question is SB 926; the politics of those divisions we will leave for readers who wish to inquire on their own, but suffice it to say that legislators’ egos are once more prevailing over students’ interests.

Here’s a thought for the legislators: Treat teachers the way you would want to be treated instead of the way they want to treat you. Give them a path forward and upward. Sell them on the promise of a fulfilling, rewarding, lasting career, rather than the sunshine. Pay them more instead of forcing them to compete for crumbs in the form of annual bonuses nobody asked for in the first place, and which teachers and districts have told you repeatedly they do not like.

And don’t dare utter the word “accountability” to justify your meddling, because you’ve shown none yourselves. Legislative mandates — in the forms of excessive testing, classroom/technological requirements (those mandates are often unfunded) and measures designed to hold teachers “accountable” but which really serve only to destroy morale — are among the most significant barriers standing between children and their education.

If you care about education, put money where your mouths are, and where you claim your morals are.

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