Public education under new threats

By Olysha Magruder

It’s hard to believe there was a time when not all children had access to a free, public education in our country. Yet, up until the mid-1800s, public education was not widespread in the United States. Schools were largely privatized for wealthy children and poor children were sent to “charity” schools meant to teach them ways not to be social menaces. During this time in the history of our country, not everyone believed education was a necessity for all children, but long years of organizing and advocating brought quality education to most children in the U.S.

Fast forward to the present day. I taught in a local public school with bathrooms that students refused to use and classrooms that were shut off because of decay. As an educator and a mother of a young child who will attend public schools, scenarios like this are disheartening to say the least.  And the sheer number of attacks on our public education system, from national to state level legislation, makes one wonder if we have lost our faith in an excellent, free public education. The national theme on education, with Betsy DeVos at the helm as Secretary of Education, is “privatize, privatize, privatize” and “choice, choice, choice”. It seems as if the new administration has taken a page from the Florida State GOP’s playbook.

Attacks on schools by Tallahassee is at a new level of ferocity, and our local representatives have been along for the ride. The following is an overview of several bills that are bad for our kids, and bad for our schools. Several were passed into law last year and more have been introduced for this year’s session.

CS/HB 7069, passed into law in 2017, is perhaps the most controversial education bill passed in Florida in some time. Not surprisingly, the bill was birthed with controversy continuing right up to Gov. Rick Scott’s stamp of approval. CS/HB 7069 funnels money meant to maintain and improve public schools’ facilities into privately owned charter schools. This bill takes capital outlay money away from disenfranchised schools, and that is simply outrageous.

Additionally, schools with a grade of “D” or below will have to close the school, change it into a so-called “school of hope,” or fire the principal and hire a new one. This is playing out in Hawthorne; Mayor Matt Surrency is working with the community to save their schools.

Another bill passed last year is the CS/CS/HB 989: Instructional Materials bill. This bill “authorizes county residents to challenge use or adoption of instructional materials.” If someone in our community, with no connection to a school or students, believes that a book is too liberal or too controversial, they can challenge the use of it in a classroom.

Sen. Keith Perry (Republican, District 8) voted in favor of both of these bills in May 2017.

Moving into the 2018 legislative season, two bills were recently introduced that will impact our public schools.

SB966 is Sen. Dennis Baxley’s (Republican, District 12) newest appalling piece of legislation. Introduced in November of 2017, and referred to the Education, Appropriations, and Rules committees in December of 2017, the so-called “controversial theories” bill states, “Controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.” It sounds benign, but this language has been used historically to challenge the ability of science teachers to teach evolution. We cannot harken back to a time when public school teachers were arrested, tried and convicted of the crime of teaching about evolution. This hostility toward “controversial theories” began nearly 100 years ago and legislation like this must still be challenged today.

Last, but not least, is HB 25. The authors of this bill quite simply wish to undercut the teachers’ unions (and other workers’ unions) by requiring a 50 percent threshold of membership or the unit will be revoked. An exception is carved out for law enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters (male-dominated, often Republican-leaning units). This is not a random number –  there are few collective bargaining units with 50 percent or more members in a given unit.

I am a former teacher who paid my union dues. Our teachers’ union offered some semblance of security in a system constantly under attack by the state. Collective bargaining is written into the constitution, with the promise that workers will not strike. With sleight of hand, the legislature may take away the last bit of bargaining rights a worker has in Florida.

So let’s recap –  public school facility money funneled to private schools, challenges to what teachers teach, evolution potentially banned from science curriculum, and teachers’ unions abolished. We have our work cut out for us, friends!

Contact your representatives today to express your concerns over these bad laws and bills. And, in August and November of 2018, come out to vote! Encourage your friends and family to take to the polls so we can show our legislators that we will not allow attacks on education to continue. On this and many other local issues, your vote can change the way our state is governed, if all of us vote.

Olysha Magruder is an educator who taught in the public schools in Alachua County and continues to work in higher education. She is a candidate for Florida State Senate, District 8 and is committed to fighting for an excellent and free public education in Florida. 

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