Teachers protest in Pinellas County, demand more funding

02/03/12 Janelle Irwin
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Last year the Florida Legislature cut $1.35 billion from public education. Yesterday teachers and other education advocates protested the sweeping cuts at two busy intersections in St. Petersburg.

On the corner of 38th Avenue and 4th Street North, motorists honked in support of teachers. Educators lined all four corners of the intersection wielding signs demanding more funding. St. Pete High teacher Colleen Parker got a jump on her retirement because she wasn’t always a teacher, but she said even with that head start she still won’t be able to retire on time.

“We’re just burnt out. My pay, it seems like my pay just continues to go down. And, for a lot of reasons it’s like they don’t care whether we have enough money to retire on. This is my second career. I did a career after my daughter graduated from high school I went to college because I wanted to be a teacher.”

Governor Scott has said he wants to inject a billion dollars of last year’s education cuts, but it still leaves a painful deficit. And at the same time Republican lawmakers are pushing to funnel public dollars into charter schools, voucher programs and virtual schools. They call it school choice. But retired teacher Ethelstine Harris said even though that term sounds like a good thing, it’s taking away from schools that will always be needed.

“If you want to send your child to a private school, I don’t think you should take the taxpayer’s money. Because that shortens the taxpayers. Some people leave the public schools with vouchers and go to private schools and the private schools can let you go if they want to; they don’t have to keep you there and then they come back to the public schools and we take them in and educate them.”

And each of those programs has ties to private companies. Charter schools are managed privately. And voucher programs provide funding for some students to attend private schools. Pinellas Schools employee Jim Jackson is running for a seat on the Pinellas County School Board. He said he doesn’t have a problem with those as long as they are kept in check.

“The state and Pinellas County does give vouchers now for challenged students, for low income students and also allowing parents to opt out of a failing school if they want to go to a school nearby. So we have that. But we don’t’ want to set up charter schools funded by for profit operations. We have a lot of charter schools in the county already, but we spend a million dollars of our tax money just monitoring the ones we have. I think we have 24 charter schools now, but there’s going to be a whole lot more coming this next year.”

Jackson is concerned with a bill sponsored by Republican State Representative Mike Weinstein. It calls for a study to determine the lowest amount of funding that would still be considered constitutional. Florida already ranks in the bottom ten in the country in per pupil funding and Jackson said this bill could make it worse.

“They want to get that down as low as they possibly can. I think virtual schools are funded at, like, $2500. So they may be shooting for that. I don’t know how public schools could operate at that amount. Now they’re going to do the study this year and because they’re all up for election, they’re not going to vote on that until the session in 2013.”

But a bill that is making progress this legislative session, called the Teacher Protection Act, would allow teachers facing civil penalties to request representation from the Attorney General. But president of the Pinellas Classroom teacher’s Association, Kim Black, said right now that would only apply to 22 teachers.

“Teachers already have protection. And it’s just really another attempt at union busting. But it would cost state taxpayers 2 million dollars. Not one of those teachers has asked for that protection.”

Another measure being criticized by public education advocates is being called the Parent Empowerment bill. Black calls it cleverly disguised. That’s because it calls for schools to provide information to parents about teacher performance, but also requires them to notify parents of other school choice options. Guy Bickerstaff is a public school graduate. He said his child received a quality education before private entities even entered the debate.

“Mine went to public schools and put himself through college and now he’s a securities and exchange lawyer making about 325k. So, public schools did him pretty good. He did it all with the public school system, even with the colleges right up until the point he got a scholarship to go to UT.”

Another group of protesters gathered in Clearwater on McMullen Booth Road and State Road 580. Demonstrators wore red to draw attention to the budget cuts they say are crippling public schools.

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