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Posted at 12:44 AM ET, 03/12/2011

A Florida teacher tells Obama he disappointed her

This was written by Miami public school teacher Jennie Smith, who attended President Obama’s speech last week at a Miami high school and a following education roundtable. Smith, incidentally, was the only teacher invited to the roundtable.

By Jennie Smith

I had the honor not only of attending President Obama’s speech at Miami Central High School, but also of participating in the President’s Education Roundtable following his speech. Of the 14 participants, I was the only teacher, and the only representative of a teacher’s union.

Although the Chamber of Commerce had more than one representative, the leadership of United Teachers of Dade was not even invited. It was my responsibility therefore to represent not only Florida teachers but also our unions.

Obama, in his speech, spoke about why investing in education is a priority even in tough fiscal times:

“When we sacrifice our commitment to education, we’re sacrificing our future. And we can’t let that happen. Our kids deserve better. Our country deserves better.”

This is a statement that any educator or parent would agree with. However, it is not a statement with which the new governor of the state of Florida, Rick Scott, agrees, as his proposed budget would slash education funding by 10%--after repeated budget cuts over the past 2 1/2 years.

The president expressed respect for the teaching profession and he reiterated that teachers need to be honored for the challenging work that they do every day. As a teacher and a union member and activist in the audience at this speech, none of this stirred me much.

What did create an impression--and not a positive one--was the fact that the president was sharing the stage with ex-governor Jeb Bush. He even congratulated Bush for his work in education reform:

“We are also honored to be joined here today by another champion of education reform, somebody who championed reform when he was in office, somebody who is now championing reform as a private citizen -- Jeb Bush...The truth is I’ve gotten to know Jeb because his family exemplifies public service. And we are so grateful to him for the work that he’s doing on behalf of education. So, thank you, Jeb.”

My hackles went up immediately. In fact, I so resented hearing Jeb Bush lauded by the president -- for whom I voted and actively campaigned -- that during the Education Roundtable, I told the president directly that many of us teachers in Florida were very disappointed to see him sharing the stage with Jeb Bush and praising his education “reform” efforts, when the Bush agenda is really about privatization and destroying unions.

Obama’s response?

Education should not be a partisan issue, and we must work together in a bipartisan fashion to enact reform. He said that he was aware of the decertification issues for our unions and that he did not support that, but that we had to be willing to compromise in the interest of improving education for our children, and that teachers had to be willing to be held accountable. He said that instead of fighting reform, we should get in front of it and lead it. He also said there was a difference between Rick Scott and Jeb Bush, and that it was important to distinguish.

If I had had more time to respond, this is what I would have said:

Mr. President, teachers are not afraid of accountability. In order to become teachers we obtain degrees—very often advanced degrees—and must be certified. We are subject to annual evaluation. These evaluations could be made stronger and more meaningful, and we are on board with that, too.

The Florida Education Association gathered 17 top teachers and together they came up with an evaluation system that would provide more meaningful, productive evaluations that teachers could use to improve, would provide ongoing support and opportunities for teacher promotion, and would even allow for a fair, equitable system of merit pay. We are not resisting reform; we are providing our input. But it far too often falls on deaf ears.

As governor, Jeb Bush imposed the high-stakes nature of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, which has resulted in a narrowed curriculum focusing more on learning to take a standardized test than on expanding student knowledge. Students are learning how to eliminate multiple-choice answers and write highly formulaic and uncreative essays; they are not learning about the history and geography of their country and world; about the earth, nature, the universe; about art and music.

This happens most in neighborhoods where students are already least likely to have a well-educated, well-informed parent at home to fill in the gaps. Bush’s school grading system has resulted in the labeling of schools, students, parents, teachers and administrators, and ensured that blighted communities already struggling with unemployment, poverty and crime will have no chance to attract businesses that could help restore them.

Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future has worked tirelessly to funnel money out of public education and into very rich, powerful corporate interests. He has pushed the expansion of charter schools, including those for profit, in the face of strong evidence that charters do not generally outperform traditional public schools. He has pushed for vouchers to private schools.

His focus on FCAT testing and unfunded, unwritten end-of-course exams has poured millions into the standardized testing industry. He led the assault against the Class Size Amendment—although the charters and private schools he touts routinely use small class sizes as a key marketing tool.

His Senate Bill 736 would be a huge disincentive to teachers to work in high-needs schools, since it mandates they be non-renewed if test scores do not meet the as-yet undefined expectations. It would create a revolving door of teachers who would have no union to protect their working conditions and fight for funding, who would be too fearful for their jobs to speak up against what is being done to them and to their students, and who would not be there long enough to accrue decent salaries, benefits or pensions.

THAT is why Florida teachers were disappointed in you, Mr. President, for sharing the stage with Jeb Bush. Public education is the foundation of democracy. Why are you betraying it for the foundation of a plutocracy?

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By  |  12:44 AM ET, 03/12/2011

 
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