Back to school is my absolute favorite time of year. I spent a decade as a high school music teacher and band director, and the season will always be about fresh starts, new opportunities and all the hope that students, teachers and support staff bring to another year.
I experienced that good energy recently at back-to-school training sessions in Brevard, Collier and other counties where I was able to attend. The people I spoke with — teachers and support staff — truly like what they do, and you can feel their optimism and engagement in the room. They believe in the importance of their work and are ready to get back to our students.
When I asked groups, “Who participated in professional development over the summer?” 90-plus percent of the attendees in each district raised their hands to indicate they had spent part of their “time off” getting better prepared for their jobs.
Almost as many, 80 to 90 percent, raised their hands when asked: “How many of you hold second jobs?”
So I see optimism and engagement, but I also see clear signs of struggle for those entrusted with the care and education of our children.
To be able to afford to stay in our schools, they drive for Uber or Lyft, teach or tutor outside their regular employment, tend bar, wait tables or, as one teacher told me, work nights as an assistant manager at a hotel.
Another teacher followed me out of a meeting to tell me about the financial difficulties she and her husband, both educators, are facing and to thank me for addressing serious issues. They were afraid of losing their home.
When hope meets the reality of public education funding and policy in Florida, hope takes a beating. All that great energy slams into the status quo of a system that’s hurting, no matter what lawmakers tell us.
Florida spends almost $1,000 less per public-school student, adjusted for inflation, than before the Great Recession. Despite the powerful economic engine driving this state forward, lawmakers have failed to re-invest in our public schools. That lack of funding affects everything education — the availability of music and art programs for students, the size of kids’ classes, whether districts are able to recruit and retain permanent, qualified teachers or whether students attempt to learn from a series of substitutes.
Our state faces a severe teacher shortage, with more than 300,000 kids potentially without a permanent teacher this fall. Despite special efforts to recruit teachers, Alachua is one county reporting more vacancies this year than last. The School Board chairman told the Gainesville Sun, “It used to be the case in Alachua County, 10 or 15 years ago, that a line of folks would want to teach. Now, it’s supply and demand. The number of applicants is 25-30% less than what it used to be.”
Writing for Forbes, former longtime educator Peter Greene notes: “We hear regularly about a ‘teacher shortage,’ and districts across the country are having real trouble filling positions with qualified people. However, calling the situation a teacher shortage is incorrect. If you can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. It means that you haven’t made an attractive enough offer to the people with Porsches to sell. You need to make a better offer.”
The Legislature’s main answer to teacher shortages so far has been bonuses, but a one-time payout that you may or may not get won’t help you qualify for a mortgage or budget for ongoing expenses. Educators need fair, competitive salaries. Pay for Florida’s teachers ranks 46th in the nation, having dropped from 28th in 2006-2007. Pay for many staff is below the poverty line. People essential to the care and education of our kids — bus drivers, paraprofessionals, food-service workers, custodians, office staff — often struggle mightily to stay afloat and keep their own families fed.
Despite everything, a new school year always brings hope. Teachers and staff will greet students this week with all the energy and enthusiasm I saw in those back-to-school sessions. They will give their best for our kids.
But at some point, we have to draw a line. Enough is enough. This year, we’re going to fight for our hopes and for a better future for our students and public schools. Legislators, get ready. This is going to be our year, and Florida will fund our future.