More than 1,200 Florida teachers on Monday followed through on a pledge to stand up for their students and schools at a statewide rally in Tallahassee despite a threat from the state Department of Education which warned that the teachers were risking termination by attending the event.
Teachers in Polk County, Florida received an email Friday night from the state Department of Education (DOE) saying that attending the rally constitutes "an illegal strike under Florida law." Teachers across the state have reportedly been saving up personal days for months to attend the action.
"I don't really have any fear that they're going to follow through with the threats... When there's hundreds of thousands of students in the state of Florida who don't have full-time teachers as it is, they don't need to be firing teachers."
—Dr. Bruce Sabin, Polk County teacherFormer educator and columnist Peter Greene wrote in Forbes that Polk County school leaders should be "especially concerned about Florida's churn and burn rate; they lose more than half of their new teachers within the first five years"—but its high turnover rate didn't stop district officials from reportedly asking the state to warn teachers that "failure to report represents a lack of commitment and focus on what’s most important," and that they could be fired as a result of attending the rally.
Termination threats had little effect on the 1,200 Polk County teachers who planned to travel nearly 300 miles to the state capital on Monday, the eve of the first day of Florida's new legislative session.
"I don't really have any fear that they're going to follow through with the threats," teacher Dr. Bruce Sabin told ABC Action News. "Our contract guarantees us the personal days as long as we follow the steps. When there's hundreds of thousands of students in the state of Florida who don't have full-time teachers as it is, they don't need to be firing teachers."
The teachers won the support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) over the weekend, who tweeted that educators won't be "intimidated or undermined" while fighting for fair treatment for themselves and their students.
Florida teachers are rallying for fair pay and better funding for schools, and they won't be intimidated or undermined. I stand with the teachers—and I'll fight so that teachers get the fair pay and well-funded schools they need and deserve. https://t.co/neJazvAc6b
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) January 12, 2020
Other support came from education advocates across Florida.
Florida educators, this is what a bully looks like. As your VP of SEA, I will be in Tallahassee Monday. When you bully our Polk County teachers, you attack all of us. We. Are. Coming. Where will you be Commissioner? #FundOurFutureFL #4EveryStudent pic.twitter.com/6UhcM0LgxL
— Bobby Agagnina for Public Schools (@Agagnina4School) January 11, 2020
Let's listen to public school teachers headed to Tallahassee (or headed there in spirit today)... and as we do, a friendly reminder that the people and our Florida Constitution back them up. The opening of Article IX is always worth a read. #FundOurFutureFL #RedForEd #whywerally pic.twitter.com/bXtlbOgPVY
— José Javier Rodríguez (@JoseJavierJJR) January 13, 2020
Sabin and his colleagues will join 13,000 other teachers and supporters from all over the state marching from the civic center in Tallahassee to the Old Capitol building, where they will hear American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, and Florida teachers speak.
The educators, led by the Florida Education Association (FEA), are demanding pay raises to help entice "experienced, qualified teachers" to work and stay in the state, a budget with enough school funding to make class sizes smaller, and an "end to the misguided policies that have led to the over-testing of students and the loss of local control in our districts."
"The state of Florida has abandoned public education in the state of Florida, starving us for funds to give them to charter schools who do not have the same restrictions as we do. It's time for them to stop," Miami-Dade teacher Elizabeth Taylor Martinez told CBS Miami.
Florida ranks 46th in the nation for teacher compensation, with the average teacher earning about $47,000 per year and starting teachers making just $37,000—below the national average first-year salary of about $39,000.
The average teacher salary in Florida has declined 11%, adjusted for inflation, in recent years.
As teachers arrived in Tallahassee from across the state Monday morning, many posted photos on social media of the signs they brought:
— Amanda V. Linton (@Amanda4Florida) January 13, 2020
— MrsCarson (@MrsCarson4) January 12, 2020
Teachers from Miami-Dade County arrived early and began chanting, "Fund our schools!"
— United Teachers of Dade (@UTD_AFT1974) January 13, 2020
The march through Tallahassee is scheduled to begin at 12:30 pm EST and the rally is set to kick off at 2:00 pm.