Florida Department of Education officials say negative comments about the state’s schools from teacher union leaders are hurting efforts to recruit more educators.
They’re calling for a change in tone.
“When you create this narrative that schools aren’t safe, then wonder why people aren’t entering the profession, I would challenge the leadership,” K-12 chancellor Jacob Oliva said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
“It’s conflicting, it’s reckless, and it needs to be clarified,” Oliva said.
His comments came amid reports that American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten called states including Florida that ban school mask mandates “unsafe,” while Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar complained that pandemic protocols combined with low wages are creating unprecedented teacher vacancies.
“Is there more we can do? Absolutely,” Oliva said. “We’re going to keep making things better.”
State and local teacher union leaders took issue with parts of the chancellor’s message. They said they haven’t called schools unsafe, but rather pressed to ensure they have protocols in place to ensure healthy conditions.
They agreed that more needs to be done to attract educators to the state’s schools. But they didn’t take responsibility for projecting a negative message that is repelling potential candidates.
“We are simply pointing out the truth of what’s happening,” Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi said.
Many jobs outside of schools pay more while incurring less stress, Velardi said. Offering bonuses to some but not all school employees did little to improve sinking morale, she added.
Increasing base pay, meanwhile, did not help more veteran instructors who find their professionalism under fire by a state government that directs much of what happens in classrooms from afar, she and others said.
“A lot of teachers are feeling the pressure of trying to stay on track with their instruction and meet all these district and state mandates,” said Don Peace, United School Employees of Pasco president. “It’s been a source of frustration.”
And it’s driving teachers away much more than the comments that Oliva mentioned, Peace and other union leaders suggested.
“”It’s an honest assessment that teachers are giving about education, and the public knows,” said Rob Kriete, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president.
Andrew Spar, president of the statewide Florida Education Association, credited state leaders for taking some positive steps to right the situation. He pointed specifically to Gov. Ron DeSantis and commissioner Richard Corcoran pushing to permanently end the spring Florida Standards Assessments in math and language arts.
They’ve provided a “glimmer of hope” in an environment where many educators have increasingly felt hopeless, Spar said.
“In addition to that, we have to talk about the rules,” he said, listing a variety of state laws and regulations relating to pay, curriculum and related matters he considered too extensive. “If the governor and commissioner would come out strong with legislators saying ‘We’ve got to support our public schools,’ and actually have a conversation, that would be so much better than when they come out and say, ‘This is what schools have to do.’”
From Oliva’s perspective, the state has taken several steps to ensure the schools are safe. The Department of Education has required that schools allow parents to opt out of any mask mandates. The state also has financially penalized districts that aren’t following the rule, arguing their coronavirus case counts are similar to districts that are complying.
Having students attend classes in person, unlike many other states, has yielded positive academic and mental health benefits, Oliva said. “Florida is going to be in a better place than other places in the nation.”
At the same time, he added, the administration has made strides to improve the teaching profession. Those include pumping $500 million into base teacher pay, making it easier to complete certification exams, establishing a program to attract more high-performing teachers into low-performing schools, and listening to hundreds of educators to revamp the state’s academic standards.
“We are committed to staffing our schools and meeting the needs of our students,” Oliva said.
Much of the effort, he added, “starts with the message that this is a great profession.”
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