"Stand up and fight!"
That was one chant heard Monday afternoon in Tallahassee during a Florida teachers union protest. The protest, held on the eve of the start of the state Legislature’s 2020 session, aimed to elevate public education into a major issue this session and campaign season: Teacher pay.
The teachers union and its allies say a decade of inadequate funding has decimated Florida's public education system. It cites state statistics that indicate more than 300,000 students started classes last fall without a full-time permanent teacher.
When the new school year began, districts scrambled to fill more than 3,500 teaching vacancies statewide.
“It is time to speak truth to power,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association. “We have seen more than a decade of disinvestment in public education in this state, and that has to stop."
Florida ranks among the bottom 10 states in teacher pay – with many school staff earning a wage below the federal poverty line – and in funding for students – with per-pupil spending in constant dollars about $300 less than it was in 2007 ($8,490 to $8,817 when adjusted for inflation).
The protest comes months after Gov. Ron DeSantis proclaimed this the “Year of the Teacher.” He has proposed a $600 million proposal to boost starting pay for classroom instructors to $47,500, which would be the second most in the nation. He has also called for another $300 million in bonuses. The plan was considered by lawmakers in a committee hearing while the teachers marched on the Capitol.
During his Tallahassee Democrat Facebook Live sessions at the Capitol on Monday, Call overheard these chants:
• "This is what democracy looks like."
• "Fund our future."
• "Stand up and fight."
• "Everywhere we go ... people want to know ... who we are ... so we tell them ... We are a union ... a mighty, mighty union."
• "I'm here because I want to be part of history," said Shari Gewanter, a first-grade teacher at Springwood Elementary School in Leon County. "After 22 years of teaching, I have to stay positive. I have to hope that if this many people are coming together for the same reason, that change will come. ... I'm looking for better funding for our schools, I'm looking for smaller class sizes, I'm looking for a better wage. I am 22 years of teaching, and I am the mid-way point between the state and the national average after 22 years, and that's ridiculous. I see teachers in the same position as myself who are leaving the profession in droves because they can't afford to get a mortgage, second jobs, third jobs just so they can stay in the classroom. I stay for my students." To illustrate her point, Gewanter carried a cardboard sign that read: "Will work for food, gas, electric ... I stay for my students. #FundOurFutureFL"
• "We're 46th in the nation, we've got to do better," Leon County Commissioner Rick Minor said of Florida teachers, adding, "There were teachers who formed who you are today." Minor then gave a shoutout to educators in his life who made a difference. "It's the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a bucket. It's a cliche, but it's so true. ... Teachers need to be paid what they deserve."
During his Facebook Live sessions, Call spotted these signs among the crowd:
• "We'll remember in November"
• "Support our schools"
• "Teaching is not a debt sentence"
• "Teaching made your job possible"
This story originally published to floridatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.