March 9, 2023 Hot Topics program: “A Thousand Disrespectful Cuts: The State of Public Education in Florida”
By: Judi Hayes
Even as Spring Break approaches at its usual breakneck speed, it seems as if everyone has education on their minds these days. The Florida legislature began its session on March 7 with a dizzying array of anti-public education bills to consider. HB1 and SB202 provide for universal vouchers for every student under the guise of “school choice.” HB 1223 expands “Don’t Say Gay” up to 8th grade. HB 999/SB266 eviscerate the intellectual independence of our precious state universities, and SB 256 attempts to break up teachers’ unions. And that’s just a sampling of the attacks on public education in Florida these days.
On Thursday, March 9, the League convened a Hot Topics luncheon/discussion focused on public education entitled “A Thousand Disrespectful Cuts: The State of Public Education in Florida.” Moderator Tammie Fields, Spectrum News 13 Anchor, herself a champion of educators, facilitated this discussion. By the way, Tammie returned to LWVOC Hot Topics after moderating a lively discussion of the ERA and its path forward last fall.
Panelists included Sadaf Knight, CEO of Florida Policy Institute, Dr. Michael Armbruster, Deputy Superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, Clinton McCracken, President of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, and Dr. Jennifer Sandoval, Associate Professor of Communication at UCF.
The panelists discussed a variety of topics ranging from the erasure of black history in schools and the banning of books deemed controversial by the fragile governor (who insists that the book bans we can see with our own eyes are a “media hoax”) to the long range effects of attacking intellectual freedom at our state universities. In K-12, Florida now has more than 9,000 teacher vacancies. In the current climate, how can any school system successfully recruit teachers and retain them? Dr. Armbruster advised that of a 9-item legislative priority list, the top priorities are supporting teachers, teacher salaries and school personnel.
More issues include: If faculty are subject to constant post-tenure review as provided for in HB999, they considered, why would any bright professors want to come to Florida? Will these sustained and coordinated attacks on higher education lead to the loss of accreditation for our top-ranked state universities? And what lies in store for the 85% of students who are currently choosing public schools (K-12), if the governor gets his way and replaces the SAT with a Christian nationalist exam - or succeeds in removing ALL Advanced Placement classes from schools? Our best and brightest students won’t be able to compete with those from other states for admission to top-tier academic institutions, and without adequate in-state options, won’t even be able to complete postgraduate work or secure high-paying jobs. Large companies like Disney, Lockheed, Advent and Orlando Health, and so many more, won’t be able to recruit and hire employees if our public education system is substandard.
And that is exactly what’s at stake. Sadaf Knight presented a data-packed slide show explaining how vouchers pull money and resources directly from our already struggling public schools - to the tune of $4 billion dollars. Dr. Sandoval, herself a plaintiff in a lawsuit the ACLU has brought to challenge the “Stop WOKE” act, spoke to the erasure of black and brown voices from our curriculum as the proposed bills demand that only history described in the Declaration of Independence be taught, and that gender studies and minority studies be removed as areas of concentration. Clinton McCracken, the current National Magnet Teacher of the Year who was instrumental in creating an award-winning arts magnet program, warned that “don’t say gay” is expanding to “don’t say THEY,” now that even pronouns - a part of speech! - are under attack as the legislature seeks to harm and erase transgender kids. Removing social and emotional learning from classrooms will have disastrous consequences as marginalized children will not know where to turn for help.
Dr. Armbruster shared a heartwarming story of his own daughter, who discovered through her own High School AP classes a propensity for calculus that led her to Georgia Tech and a sought-after career in industrial engineering. His pride turned bittersweet when he revealed that his daughter and her wife don’t feel welcome in Florida and when it is time to raise a family, they will not be moving to Florida, even at the cost of being close to grandparents, wistfully imagining taking his grandchildren out for pizza in his golf cart. Maybe on vacations, he pondered. He also pointed out that the top concern many have voiced is the teacher shortage and teacher pay. At the end of the day, he said, it’s all about the kids.
These education laws have far-reaching consequences for everyone. Whether it’s not getting into a good college, not being able to recruit employees, or keeping families apart geographically, we know that supporting public education is a public good and benefits everyone by providing opportunities.
Members’ questions, including one from yours truly, all came from the same place: what can we do?! What can we, as parents and teachers and voters and workers and taxpayers, do to let our lawmakers know that we want a robust, inclusive, and accessible public education for all kids, that respects everyone’s differences and pays teachers a fair wage? Local lawmakers and including some who are league members like Rep. Anna Eskamani, Sen. Geraldine Thompson, Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, Rep. Rita Harris, Sen. Vic Torres – they are fighting for us, tooth and nail, every day. But with a Republican supermajority and a governor with his sights set on the White House, what else can we do? Organize. Write letters to the editor. Call and email legislators on the committees, House and Senate, who will hear these bills.
Moderator: Tammie Fields, Spectrum News, host of “A+ Teachers” segment
Sadaf Knight, CEO of Florida Policy Institute
Dr. Michael Armbruster, Deputy Superintendent, OCPS
Clinton McCracken, President, Orange County Classroom Teachers Association
Dr. Jennifer Sandoval, Associate Professor of Communication, UCF