Children lose when teachers unions only say ‘no’

The first time Florida saw a massive statewide teachers’ strike was in the spring of 1968. As editor of the student paper at Miami Norland Senior High, I skipped school to cover the protests. My principal wound up suspending me for two weeks, but it was worth it.

I saw teachers walk out of class, spurred by the advocacy of their union. The educators I talked to weren’t demanding higher salaries. They wanted better teaching materials and more resources for their classrooms. I came to see unions as champions for quality education.

Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and even into the ’90s, when I was proud to serve as communications director of the Florida Education Association, Florida’s two teachers unions were deeply involved in almost every significant education reform enacted in the state.

They backed local control and school-based accountability. Their leaders understood that to be relevant in Tallahassee, they needed to offer something other than the word “no.”

But as Republicans gained power in the state Legislature, and GOP governors became the norm rather than an anomaly, the unions stopped trying to gain a seat at the table. Instead, they kept trying to flip the table over.

Rather than embrace the new definition of public education, which gained momentum in 1996 after Gov. Lawton Chiles signed the law authorizing Florida’s first charter schools, the teachers unions resisted it with everything they had. Rather than collaborate in meaningful reform, they fought many of the policies Gov. Jeb Bush put in place to help Florida vault toward the top of the national pack for educational quality.

Now, the new definition of public education has become mainstream. All over the country, it’s picking up support from Democrats as well as Republicans.

Florida is now a national leader in offering programs that allow all families to choose the school that best meet their needs.

More than thirty percent of the 2.8 million children funded by Florida taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters, virtual schools. They dual enroll with classes at universities and community colleges. In the McKay and Gardiner voucher programs, they use money from the state treasury to attend private, faith-based schools.

The Florida tax credit scholarship program is also a vital part of this new definition. It helps more than 93,000 mostly low-income children afford private school tuition. Sadly, the teachers union is trying to fight the scholarships in court.

This isn’t the first time the union has taken to the courts after losing in the political arena. Ten years ago, they scored a victory against a school voucher program Bush created.

But tax credit scholarships are different. Their funding doesn’t come out of the public-school system. Multiple studies have shown they actually help the bottom line of Florida’s public schools.

This latest lawsuit feels more like a Hail Mary. The teachers union is going after a program that has grown over past 15 years because it helps address the needs of underprivileged children who struggle in public schools. It’s one piece of the puzzle that helps ensure all children, regardless of their station in life, can have an equal opportunity to get a quality education.

With this lawsuit, the union hasn’t just squashed what was left of its credibility with the Republican powers that be in Tallahassee. By attacking the educational choices of tens of thousands of families, it’s ceded the moral authority its members earned when they took to the streets to demand better schools for all Florida’s children.

As I wrote this week in the Tallahassee Democrat:

Ignoring the pleas of 10,000 people who marched on Tallahassee to Drop the Suit,” the FEA presses on in the immoral equivalent of a war on children. The nearly 100,000 potential child casualties this lawsuit might cost would etch the saddest, darkest chapter in the union’s mostly proud history. The FEA is spending hard-working public school teachers’ dues on multi-million-dollar legal fees to advance this suit. It’s just plain wrong.

Back in the day, I saw teachers marching for empowerment. In January of this year, I saw over 10,000 scholarship parents and children doing the same. In both cases, it was easy for me to decide which side to be on.

The author of this post is CEO of Sachs Media Group, which runs advertising and media campaigns for the Save Our Scholarships Coalition, an organization defending the tax credit scholarship program. Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarships.

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