At first, it reminded me of a 6th period class on the last day before Spring Break. Most of the 300 seats were empty in the auditorium and the only students in the room had been brought by their parents or had come to see friends. Except, this was a rally for public education, which was taking place in the middle of the summer. Considering that, the seventy-five people, or so, that did show up was a positive turn out.
The production values were above average, with professionally designed and consistent “Women’s March” branding rolled out on T-shirts, hand-signs and video splash screens. The venue was properly set up for the lineup of speakers there to address the small, but spirited crowd about a cause, which had come into sharp relief over the past week. Florida House Bill (HB) 7069 was signed into law by governor Rick Scott a few days earlier and public school advocates across the state have been reeling since. The sweeping legislation gives for-profit, charter schools nearly half a billion dollars in state funding and access to public school facilities and infrastructure.
“Now, we’re in a situation; a state of affairs where we have legislators that are trying to systematically dismantle public education.”, said Karla Hernandez Mats, the first Hispanic President of United Teachers of Dade (UTD), an organization that traces its roots to the nation’s first statewide teachers’ strike in the history of the United States.
Pat Tornillo was a Dade County public school Teacher when he ran and won the presidency of the Dade County Classroom Teachers Association (DCCTA) in 1963 on a platform of greater organizational militancy and the desegregation of teaching staff.
The Florida Education Association (FEA), the larger body to which the DCCTA and other educators’ associations yielded to, was originally limited to white teachers and administrators and even engaged in direct actions to sabotage the efforts of African-American teachers who sought equal pay and other benefits. Tornillo upended the status quo, playing a vital role in the dissolution of these legacy, racist policies as well as the establishment of collective bargaining rights for educators through the adoption of a more union-like approach to their dealings with the state.
By the time the strike broke out in 1968, Tornillo’s star was steadily rising. The work stoppage lasted anywhere from a week to three months and would yield little in the way of practical gains for the teachers, but the strike split and weakened the FEA, which opened the door for Tornillo to merge his DCCTA – the largest teachers’ union in the state – with FEA rival American Federation of Teachers affiliate in Dade to form the United Teachers of Dade. This forced the FEA into a state-wide merger with AFT by 1974. The new teachers’ federation would be called FEA-United and Pat Tornillo would control the organization for almost a quarter of a century until his spectacular fall from grace.
In 2003, the FBI raided UTD’s headquarters in Miami after being tipped off about Tornillo’s embezzlement of union dues. The scandal rocked the entire state and the financial burden brought on by the ordeal nearly bankrupted the organization. Tornillo, who died in 2007, was convicted and sentenced to twenty-seven months in prison for stealing millions out of UTD’s coffers. The FBI, however, may still be watching - In my attempt to connect to a weak Wi-Fi signal at the rally’s venue, a network named “FBI surveillance van #1” appeared on my mobile device, but mysteriously disappeared before I could take a screenshot.
Preaching to the Choir
Resigned to the fact that I won’t have access to my Twitter feed, I turn back towards the stage of the Chapman Center at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus. It is brightly decorated with a couple of blue roll-up banners, indoor plants and a futuristic-looking plexiglas podium from where Aida Reyes, the Women’s March Miami representative and emcee, keeps the introductions going.
A few spots after Hernandez-Mats was local radio personality, Fernand Amandi, whose program, “The Fernand Amandi Show” on 610 WIOD was recently pulled by the station citing budgetary considerations. Many believe it was his anti-Trump rhetoric, however, which caused his show to be axed. “We need to make their lives a living hell. You need to call them. You need to show up at their offices. You need to show up at their town hall meetings. When they do their public hearings, you need to bring your friends and family and make them realize that if they don’t respond to the people’s interest, we will vote them out.”, Amandi told the largely anti-Trump audience.
Joe Gebara, former President of Florida PTA/PTSA, echoed these same ideas of civic awareness in his speech, even cueing the audience to shout “and vote!” after specific trigger words. Nonetheless, both of them made it abundantly clear that they are not against private schools as such. Only their funding at the expense of public schools. The clarification seemed unnecessary, but maybe they had been looking for a Wi-Fi connection, too, and decided to err on the side of caution.
Kay Reed, from Women’s March Broward, talked about the importance of public schools for parents of disabled children, who, she said, “pay about ten to sixty thousand dollars more to raise and take care of our child” and that public schools are often the “only venue for disabled children to find a quality education.” Necessary things like speech therapy or behavioral therapy would be all but impossible for most families to afford if these were not provided by the public education system.
Jennifer Solomon, followed up with the more controversial issues surrounding gender and identity. As the South Miami Chapter President of PFLAG, which stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians, she spoke about the challenge of raising her own “gender non-conforming” son; a term she defined as the “opposite of a tomboy”. Mrs. Solomon called for the introduction of staff protocols at the elementary school level for the protection of children who display fluid gender roles. “This is new for elementary school.”, she said, “We can’t expect our teachers to know this. This is something that we need to get into the schools so they can identify what they can do to make the children safe”.
Several other guest speakers broached matters of social justice, including a few students, notable among whom was a young man named Connor Cunningham. He shared his inspiring story of overcoming a diagnosis of autism at an early age and using public school system resources – and the social interactions he found there – to fight through his challenges. Today, he is the Co-Founder of the Stand in my Shoes movement, which promotes tolerance and awareness of neurodiversity in children.
Many of the guest speakers at the March for Public Education here in Miami have ties to the various labor unions that represent the educators and education professionals that work in our public schools. Organizations like UTD, the National Educators Association (NEA), Education Support Professionals (ESP) and others naturally see themselves as the most threatened by the election of Donald Trump.
But as laudable as we find the struggle for social justice and as much as we need advocacy for those can’t fend for themselves, school children should never be used to advance an agenda. As the Tornillo case shows, entrenched bureaucracies can become blind to the original purpose of the institutions they serve and in an effort to remain in power, will undermine the very principles they pretend to uphold.
“Fair and fully-funded public education for all children is a moral imperative we should all stand up for”, said Rudy Diaz, 2017 Miami Dade Teacher of the Year, in the event’s closing remarks. You will not find many people on either side of the aisle that will disagree with that statement. Most would also agree that the public education system is in crisis and anyone who witnessed the apathetic turn out for yesterday’s nationwide March for Public Education events – a dozen planned across the country – including the two thirds empty auditorium in Miami, it’s clear that it goes deeper than a few earmarked dollars.
The School Bell Curve
Change is inevitable. In the 21st century, it is also furiously fast. The rate of automation, the advancement in robotics, big data and the IoT are on the verge of transforming every facet of life on earth.
Jeremy Rifkin, in his seminal work “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” predicts a very near future where work, as we know it, will be obsolete. Economists, as we speak, are baffled by the unpredictability of markets that no longer follow once proven patterns. Proponents of a universal basic income are convinced that it is the only way to stem the coming lag between production and supply, as technologies like 3-D printing quickly evolve and manual labor is relegated to a past chapter in human history. If so, what does education mean in a society where people no longer need to work to live?
We are undergoing deep changes in society brought on by exponential advancement in technology and the public school system will have to adapt like the rest of us. It is, itself, the product of the Industrial revolution, another massive social shift. But that shift occurred over decades, whereas ours can be counted almost by the hour.
Our educators have to see beyond the obvious and look past petty politics. They must develop a vision for the future and for that, they need to see the forces that are leading us there.
Simply stated: If you want to keep teaching, you need to keep learning.