This past week I saw the film, “American Teacher,” and participated in a panel discussion afterwards. This is a powerful documentary that tracks four dedicated teachers from different parts of the country as they deal with the many challenges of their chosen career.
Each teacher was inspirational, each was overworked and each was struggling to make ends meet. One of the teachers ultimately lost his family because he was away so much. Another left the profession despite being widely recognized as one of the best in the field.
A third teacher had her baby in the middle of the school year and was conflicted between her career and child. The fourth teacher was really making a difference in an inner city school but had to leave for greener pastures when the opportunity arose.
The overall theme of the movie was that American teachers are underpaid or not getting the support they need to be successful. Interspersed with the stories were some powerful statistics. Nearly half the teachers in public education leave the profession within five years. Teachers earn 14 percent less than people in other professions that require similar levels of education.
The high rate of teacher turnover is costing our country more than $7 billion a year. Sixty-two percent of teachers must take second jobs to support their families, yet more than 90 percent of teachers contribute their own money to their students and classrooms.
I am the son of a teacher, I am married to a teacher, and I have had the privilege of teaching myself, so I recognize that I am biased. But I have a hard time understanding how the Florida Legislature has been so disdainful of their obligation to our state’s education system.
After all, each legislator took an oath to uphold the Florida Constitution, and Article IX, section 1 could not be more clear: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high-quality education and for the establishment, maintenance and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.”
I do not believe we have lived up to this consitutional guarantee. Instead of properly funding education, the Legislature has tried to impose its will upon local school districts. This legislative will is expressed with increasing unfunded mandates, inconsistent policies, an emphasis on standardized testing over classroom learning, giveaways to corporate “partners” and the politicization of policies governing our colleges and universities.
I understand there are complex issues and there is room for vigorous debate over the best way to accomplish educational policy goals. But I start with the proposition that great teachers are indispensible to a high-quality public education system. We must identify, train, compensate and support those teachers before undertaking any other reforms.
Adam Tebrugge is the Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, District 71.