Public school teachers endure shabby treatment from Tallahassee


No one connected to our county’s public schools believes teachers are using their classrooms to indoctrinate students into some far-left political ideology or “grooming” our kids for sexual exploitation.

Not School Board members.

Not district administrators.

Not other teachers.

“That’s not happening here,” School Board Chair Teri Barenborg, a career educator, said last week. “Never in my career as a teacher or administrator did I see it or hear of it.”

If there were any indoctrination going on in our Republican-dominated community, it’s more likely to be toward conservative thinking.

“People think we’re a Democrat-leaning group?” said Jennifer Freeland, president of the Indian River Education Association, the local union that represents the county’s public school teachers.

“That’s not the case,” she added. “We’re mostly red, just like the rest of the county.”

Just like most of the state.

When, then, did our once-admired and sometimes-beloved public school teachers – they were hailed as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic – become the bad guys?

Better yet: Why?

Why does our state government continue to enact laws and dictate policies that treat teachers as if they can’t be trusted and make teaching in Florida’s public schools an increasingly undesirable profession?

It’s bad enough that too many teachers feel disrespected, unappreciated and generally beaten down by the recent and heavy-handed legislation, which restricts what they can say in classroom – to the point where they may be sued, fired or see their certifications burned at the stake of intolerance if they utter the wrong words.

It’s even worse that our government and education leaders in Tallahassee have cast aspersions on the teachers’ motives by accusing them of the aforementioned indoctrination and grooming of students.

Now, though, another new law discourages membership in the unions that represent teachers in contract negotiations and ensure due process is followed when allegations of wrongdoing are made.

“Just another step in the union-breaking game,” Freeland called it.

“Think about it: If they can break the unions, who gets to decide how much teachers are paid, what benefits they are afforded, how many duties they can be assigned, how much planning time they get?” she continued.

“When the unions are gone, teachers no longer will have anyone to fight for them,” Freeland added. “Working conditions will change, and when teachers are accused of doing something wrong, their due process can be taken away because there will be no one there to complain.

“And you’re wondering why teachers are leaving?”

For those who don’t know: Last May, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law legislation aimed at public employee unions – including the teacher unions, which remain one of his favorite targets.

“For far too long, unions and rogue school boards have pushed around our teachers, misused government funds for political purposes, taken money from teachers’ pockets to steer it for purposes other than representation of teachers and sheltered their true political goals from the educators they purport to represent,” DeSantis said in a statement released to the media.

The law, which took effect on July 1 and conveniently excluded organizations that represent law enforcement officers and firefighters, prohibits other public-sector unions from receiving members’ dues through automatic paycheck deductions.

Instead, the union members must endure the inconvenience of finding another way to pay their dues.

The teachers’ union here has arranged direct payment of the $60-per-month dues through the eDues website, or members may pay annually with a check.

“It’s just a way to make it more difficult to be a member,” Freeland said, “and for the unions to get to the 60-percent membership required by the state.”

Yes, the new law also mandates that at least 60 percent of employees must be dues-paying members for a union to maintain its certification as a bargaining agent.

If membership falls below that threshold, a union must appeal to the state to hold an election in which the employees will determine the union’s fate.

Freeland said 62 percent of the local public-school teachers are dues-paying members of the IREA, which she said has always enjoyed a membership that was “above 70 percent for years, and always has been well over 60 percent.”

But she warned that the state’s relentless efforts will make maintaining that 60 percent a “struggle every single year.”

It doesn’t seem to matter that teachers’ unions in Florida have no real clout, since the state constitution makes it illegal for them to strike. Nor does it matter that teachers in this state are among the lowest paid in America, earning an average of only $50,000 per year.

In this county, entry-level teachers are paid $48,500 annually. Their pay tops out at about $60,000 if they don’t earn a graduate degree.

Clearly, nobody is going into teaching for the money.

But that’s one reason – along with student-discipline problems, the politization of public education and concocted culture-war attacks from a local tyrannical group that operates under a misleadingly wholesome banner – so many teachers continue to leave the classroom.

Somehow, though, under the leadership of School Superintendent David Moore, our district has managed to earn a “A” grade from the Florida Department of Education and achieve a 96 percent graduation rate that ranks No. 3 among the state’s 67 counties.

The teachers had a lot to do with it.

So did the collaborative working relationship between the local teachers’ union and the district administration.

“We follow a more interest-based model, rather than an adversarial model,” Freeland said.

“We negotiate. We lay out what we need, and the district does the same. Then we talk about how we get there.

“In some circumstances, however, the state has tied the administrators’ hands so they can’t work with us.”

School Board member Peggy Jones, who has devoted nearly 50 years to public education, said she is frustrated with the state’s treatment of teachers, which she believes has contributed mightily to the decline in college graduates entering the profession.

“Hiring a teacher is difficult,” she said, “but keeping a teacher is more difficult.”

That trend is likely to continue, though, and the impact eventually will trickle down from Tallahassee to the classroom.

“We’re already seeing more stress, more burnout, more teachers leaving because they just can’t take it anymore,” Freeland said. “And with the way things are now, with the strict curriculum and people waiting to pounce if you say the wrong thing, it’s tougher for teachers to enjoy what they’re doing.

“You really can’t blame the ones who decide to get out.”

Freeland blames the state politicians, who she said have controlled the narrative, pushing damaging propaganda and anti-union rhetoric that paints teachers as villains.

“It didn’t happen overnight – this perception that the student and parent are always right and the teacher is always wrong,” Freeland said. “It’s been happening for a while, and it’s wrong. But it’s going to continue.

“Teachers aren’t perfect, but they care about what’s best for their students,” she added.

“They’re not indoctrinating or grooming kids. They’re not teaching things they’re not supposed to teach. They’re being targeted purely for political purposes.”

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