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Florida Ed. Department Threatens to Fire Thousands of Teachers Rallying for Higher Pay

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In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has proclaimed 2020 the "year of the teacher." And it's starting off with a massive, statewide teacher protest.

Thousands of teachers, parents, and other supporters are expected to rally in Tallahassee on Monday—despite threats from the state that participating teachers could lose their jobs. Teachers took personal days to protest at the state capitol the day before the legislative session starts to call for higher pay and more school funding. 

The Florida Education Association has proposed a $24 billion investment in public schools over 10 years. FEA President Fed Ingram said in an interview that the money would give every public school employee a 10 percent raise, and would also provide more resources for schools, including for programs like band, art, and drama. 

"Teachers are advocating for students," he said. "They want everything that's necessary for student success." 

The average teacher salary in Florida is about $48,400, according to the National Education Association—well below the national average of $61,730. And according to Education Week data that's adjusted for regional cost differences, Florida's per-pupil spending is $9,764. The national average is $12,756. 

The state's teachers' union has said teachers feel unappreciated and fed up with these conditions. Florida started the school year with about 3,500 teaching vacancies.

DeSantis, a Republican who has embraced several controversial education policies such as a state voucher program for middle-income families, has proposed raising the minimum teacher salary to $47,500, and implementing a new $300 million performance-based bonus program for teachers and principals. The proposed program would give bigger bonuses to teachers and principals who work at high-poverty schools. Bonuses are also based, at least partially, on gains that schools make in the state's A-F school grading calculation. 

Ingram said teachers are unhappy with both of those proposals, especially since the bonuses are tied to student test scores. Raising the minimum salary "disadvantages veteran teachers," he said. "They would be left to fight over this bonus scheme as it relates to teachers, which is patently unfair."

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An 'Illegal Strike'?

In Polk County, the seventh largest school district in the state, about 600 teachers initially said they would be absent from work for the rally. But as the date drew closer, another 1,000 teachers took personal days. Jacqueline Byrd, the district's superintendent, said in a statement that she was unprepared to handle such high volume of teacher absences, and reached out to state leaders for help.

The Florida Department of Education responded with a strongly worded letter.

"The proposed failure to report represents a lack of commitment and focus on what is most important—the educational success of Polk County students," wrote Matthew Mears, the general counsel for the department. "[A] concerted failure to report for duty constitutes an illegal strike under Florida law. When teachers collectively decide not to show up for work on a specific day, children suffer as learning slows or even stops altogether." 

Teachers who do not report for duty could be "terminated, ... subject to reemployment upon particular significant limitations," Mears wrote. And the local teachers' union could receive an up to $20,000 fine or have its certification as the bargaining agent revoked or suspended. 

Stephanie Yocum, the president of the Polk Education Association, posted on Facebook that teachers who had not yet RSVPed for the bus ride to Tallahassee should report to work on Monday. 

"It is important that the public message remain about what our students need to be successful, and we must not allow the commissioner to turn this into a distraction," Yocum wrote.

On Sunday evening, the school district posted on Facebook that 1,500 teachers would be absent—slightly lower than previously expected. The district will keep schools open through a combination of substitute teachers and district staff.

Ingram called the department's letter "an intimidation tactic." Teachers are taking a personal day allowed in their contract and going back to work on Tuesday, so this doesn't qualify as a strike, he said. Instead, teachers are exercising their rights "as citizens, parents, grandparents, and professionals."

"This is no field trip for folks," Ingram said. "This is business—unfortunately, that they have to conduct on behalf of themselves." 

Florida teachers are the latest to stage a statewide protest on a workday, following teachers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon, and Indiana last year. 

Top image: Thousands rallied and marched to the Florida Historic Capitol to demand more money for public schools Jan. 13 in Tallahassee, Fla. —Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP

Bottom: Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, speaks to the crowd of thousands gathered in front of the Florida Historic Capitol. —Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP

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