When Florida legislators are not fighting the culture wars, they are finding new ways to restrict what local governments can do. This year, both those issues are combining as legislators propose new ways to clamp down on local school boards, school districts and classroom teachers.
There are bills to take away the salaries of school members, impose partisan school elections on localities that opted for nonpartisan elections and allow school systems to be sued for teaching anything that sounds like critical race theory, however that gets defined. That’s in addition to laws limiting the ability of any local government to require COVID-19 countermeasures.
In the classroom, video surveillance of teachers is proposed, new limits on what can be discussed in classrooms (we don’t talk about gay people; we don’t talk about race) and new rules for libraries that would set up books for removal by mobilized conservative groups.
Taken together, a lot is barreling down the legislative road toward the average Florida school board, school principal and teacher.
Make no mistake, COVID-times have been especially hard on school systems. Teachers are resigning, recruitment is difficult, absenteeism has increased, the spread of disease is a constant worry and the newest spike of COVID has in recent days produced a record number of cases in the schools among both students and staff. School board meetings regularly require policing to prevent disturbances.
All these additional stresses on teachers, kids and administrators, yet this is also the time when legislators have decided that public schools need stricter state and legal policing, new ideological mandates, and more input from partisan political interests. Hard days for educators and politicians are set on making them harder.
And then there are the costs of complying with all these new mandates. “Any updates to existing guidelines, standards, and frameworks, as well as the adoption of compliant training, would be accomplished within existing resources,” the legislative analysis of the parental right bill says blithely. In other words, the locals will pay for it all somehow.
School boards have long been in the legislative crosshairs. A bill to eliminate school board salaries has been filed. And too, a bill to require partisan school board elections is again being pushed. Something that would take away the right of independent voters to participate in primary elections and encourage more starkly partisan oversight of public education.
A thankless job
It’s hard to think of a more thankless job in local government than the school board. The nuts and bolts of local government are mere abstractions to most people. But everyone’s attended a school and lots of people have kids and grandchildren currently in public schools. That means most folks have strong opinions about schools and schooling gained from firsthand experience. Everyone’s an expert. Everyone’s been there. Everyone has a stake.
This means that running things smoothly requires more consensus-building than at other levels of government. And it’s no surprise that people who serve on school boards seldom do so to punch their tickets on the way to the next office. And the salary? That $41,000-something in Volusia County? It’s a full-time job and then some. There are warehouse workers who make more per hour.
This is demanding work that requires real expertise – not just a few strong opinions. It takes at least a couple of budget cycles to learn the ins and outs of the Florida Education Finance Program formula. It takes a couple of tense teacher contract negotiation rounds to understand what keeping good teachers really costs.
Show me a candidate says all you need is the common sense to get everyone back to the readin,' 'ritin' and 'rithmatic and the firm conviction that there is easy money to be found by cutting the fat and I’ll show you a person about to run headfirst into the brick wall of what we like to call reality.
And now school systems must deal with another difficult session in Tallahassee, the political pressures of COVID-times, and a new election year. Unionized classroom teachers are the ritual punching bags of Republican campaign mailings, school boards are branded enemies of state government for exercising independent judgment on the health and safety of their communities, and history teachers are suspected of widespread subversion.
Maybe calmer heads will prevail this session, and having made their point, legislators will lay off local schools. I rather doubt it. This is an election year and there are culture wars to jump into.
Mark Lane is a News-Journal columnist. His email is email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Florida Legislature coming down hard on public education