Monday, November 30, 2015

The War on Public Education in Broward County Florida- A Guest Post by Terry Pruess


Things I plan to say to my leaders with my local and national community of public education supporters listening in...

Let’s NOT be  “The Last Honeypot for Wallstreet.”

I have been a loyal, dedicated, caring, hard-working, responsible, dependable, trustworthy, “highly effective” career public educator for 3 decades, Teacher of the Year at Olsen Middle School and a Hispanic Teacher of the Year in Broward. I have been held in high regard and been a leader in three counties: L.A., Dade and Broward. I’ve also been a vocal advocate of student, teacher and parent rights in all the leadership roles I’ve held... As such, I know fully that my opinions will not be met with any repercussions or retaliation.
Some teachers, however, fear that they will be harmed for speaking out, brought up on some false charges, sent off to “Teacher Jail’ or “The Book Depository”…cast out to another school on the far end of the county to teach an unfamiliar subject until they are broken down and leave the profession on their own, marked via “gotcha” evaluations systems as “ineffective,” or even marginalized as a lone disgruntled voice. I’ve seen and heard it all from one coast to another as I have evolved in education advocacy, but those things can not worry me today because this letter is about JUSTICE for our children and communities. 
I have been, along with thousands of colleagues, far too “highly effective” to need to worry about retaliation. Right?  I am stealing this term from the hands legislators and our imposed evaluation system of Marzano because it fits too many teachers I know, far more than the shamefully low 5%SBBC’s flawed evaluation system officially produced for Broward County… among the lowest in the state of Florida!  
So, let me begin…

How we got to this point is not always clear to those of us who are working daily in the trenches, giving love, support, encouragement and a quality education to the students of Broward County. But we do sense that something is very wrong. We know that many complaints come into our union stating that our teachers cannot teach creatively, that they are losing autonomy in the classroom, that they are being asked to teach to the test and we all know that this is not REAL education. 

Parents know this! Educators know this! Students know this!

We know that mandates from above affect your decisions as leaders, and that some may seem insurmountable, but… there is NO way that we can continue on this path and say that we are truly serving our students, our loyal employees, and our communities. We know that your intent is to provide a quality education in our public school system so we are asking that you listen more to the teachers, parents, students and education experts.  

 is taking up more time than ever in our history. More funds are going to computers to be used for testing and test prep products than ever before. While budgets for testing, computers, and charter schools sky rocket, a large number of our teachers who have dedicated their lives to education have been slammed and insulted by the presumed funding shortfalls and the unrealistic guidelines of Florida Laws… like SB736. This law effectively strips away the hard won gains which put teachers on a reasonably predictive salary step schedule in the past. 

Prior to this law’s assault, there were other assaults on Broward educators and our economic strength. I will share my story because it is similar to many and relevant to Broward County... 

I worked tirelessly to gain every possible accolade as an accomplished “HIGHLY EFFECTIVE”teacher, then… I studied hard to earn National Board Certification. The promise of $10,000-$12,000.00 per year was bestowed upon me after much toil and effort for earning this distinguished honor. I became a mentor teacher, a Nova Southeastern University-South Florida Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a workshop facilitator. I went to many schools, helped many teachers and shared my talents. I was respected for my insights and accomplishments in journaling programs and behavior management among the “Drop Out Prevention” population which I gladly shared. I could make students LOVE to write and received some of the highest writing scores in the county… I felt proud. I was compensated professionally, not by my high test scores, but in ways that made a difference in my life and the lives of others, impacting the growth of student learning and teacher development. During this time, I even wrote a book, Voices in the Hall, about the complex lives of the at-risk students I was working with, whose stories, as revealed through their own writing, profoundly influenced the course of my life, my view of humanity and the beliefs I held as an educator.  National Board Certification was a pinnacle in the careers of many educators and we developed a sophisticated network of communication, mentorship and service to others that extended locally and nationally. Those were the happiest, most rewarding, and most productive years of my career… Then… POOF!  It was gone!  I felt defrauded and stripped of my previously lauded educational worth. In the same year, due to budget cuts, many Broward teachers lost their 6th period supplements and were asked to do the same work in less time, and with less compensation, often with more students per period. In my experience I lost over $20,000.00 in one year… a financial hit few can survive!  I was told that National Board funding was gone and would not return. Sorry Charlie! I had laboriously worked on the equivalent of a Master’s Thesis on the theories of my practice with at-risk students as developing writers, and would never again receive the financial recognition that was tied to it and promised to me... a devastating blow for thousands of Broward teachers who still proudly sign, NBCT, behind their names. All of this was insult enough, but no one could foresee what was to come. I encountered years of frozen steps, keeping me from obtaining my long awaited $10,000.00 step increase which was due at step 20. I hoped, in vain, that it might bring some financial stability back to my home life. My total losses were now over $30,000.00 per year, and … the next un-earned step brought it to $40,000.00. During this period my husband’s health began to fail, without the once steady income I could count on as a teacher, which allowed us to take entrepreneurial risks that influenced and enhanced our community, we slowly lost our other sources income. 
We had owned Thor Design, a popular anchor Art Gallery on Harrison Street from 1990 to 2006 with an adjacent Art Studio and Functional Art Furniture Workshop. It was a place where local artists hung out and networked on a street chock full of talented artisans in every medium imaginable from furniture designers and metal workers, to potters and sophisticated, nationally recognized, painters. That emerging artist colony that we were central in nurturing, and that my teacher income helped to support with occasional seed money, got the attention of the city and serious investors, sparked the push for the CRA, birthed the art movement that brought Downtown Hollywood back as go-to social hub and an economic force, created “Art Walks” and directly influenced the name of “Arts Park,” formerly known as Young Circle.  

As business owners in Hollywood and Dania Beach for 3 decades, we fully understand just how the salary shortfalls of SBBC, the largest employer in Broward, affect our local economy. You can NOT tell ME that when you deny your teachers and other employees the pay they are due that YOU do NOT affect an entire community.  You DO, and YOU DID! 
I stuck with teaching as my husband recovered his health slowly. We raised our boys as we watched our whole world crumble around us, believing that eventually the economy would improve and my income would get back to what I had been promised, which was to be at $72,000.00 base salary after 25 years of service. But 25 years came and went, and that figure was never close to being reached as year after year, yet another excuse was found to keep from paying Broward teachers what they were due.  Like thousands of educators as “head of household” we struggled to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary… Then we had that 3% taken out for retirement funding… No worries…. SHHHH… Teachers will not complain!  Then… Enter, SB736. In what I never could have expected, lawmakers have effectively and cruelly tied our hands at the collective bargaining table, the very right we fought for when we gave up our right to STRIKE.  Does that mean we are NO LONGER a “Right to Work” state?  Our long awaited steps and expected salary increases for a lifetime of service were taken with the wave of a malevolent magic wand... GONE… After 25 years of waiting, I was informed I wouldNEVER reach the salary I had been promised and working towards all of my adult life. Meanwhile, I looked around and noticed that in less than a decade the great American Middle Class, which unions were known to build up and protect, was dwindling. Other Broward store owners, restauranteurs, and retailers my husband and I had associated with for decades were gone… favorite restaurants closed… mom and pop shops disappeared… teachers were struggling to get by with little if any disposable income… students I’d taught who were graduating from college could not easily find quality jobs… some ended up in jail… and this was a national trend!  The wealth once spread more equally to ALL Americans was rushing quickly into the hands of wealthy corporations, hedge funds and the 1%.  

I had seen the brilliant documentary by Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, called Inequality for All.  I came away asking myself…Why?

Why is this being allowed?

The answer was clear… The lawmakers are being “allowed!” Neither the UNIONS, nor thePEOPLE are stopping them.

Your job as leaders of education policy in Broward and as leaders of those who serve our students, parents, employees and our community is NOT to blindly “follow the laws” our obviously oblivious legislators concoct for us with their limited understanding of the dynamic of teaching and learning. It is to fight for Broward and find solutions within the problem.  It is also to protect the well-being and integrity of our local public education system. It is your job to give the people of Broward County peace of mind, a quality education for their children, a dependable and educated population upon graduation, safe and rewarding places of employment, a means to energize the economy, and most importantly to provide quality neighborhood schools that make great neighborhoods and wonderful, nurturing places to live and raise families. Only YOU have the ability to help improve the quality of life in each and every community throughout Broward for all citizens and taxpayers. 

So… when the SBBC says things about the teacher contract negotiations and present impasse in a press release and county email alert like … “The district would not absolve the BTU of its prior agreement to year three of the grandfathered salary schedule…”  to explain why teachers cannot get a professional wage… I get very worried!  It is SBBC that must get on its knees and ask its teachers and other employees to be “ABSOLVED.”  It is the people of Broward who SBBC might petition to grant“ABSOLUTION!”  To my understanding… Broward Teachers Union has already determined that you had 7.5 million in lapsed funds last year, and do have at least 30-40 million available to put towards your debts to teachers this year.. Our community has seen how money is found and generated when needed.  We commend you for this.  Please, NOW, place teams of people on the charge to find ways to pay your debts to our community.  We can join you in taking a stand against the educational assault.  We can help you find those ways!  Let’s do it together!

Our educators and parents know that the laws that you are sometimes told you must follow are oftenill-conceived and improperly funded. Your job is NOT to just blindly follow these misguided laws which are so often NOT educationally sound… but YOUR job is to protect your electorate, your schools, your students, your employees, and your communities from the corporate greed, injudicious rulings and faulty ideals that often drive the creation of those laws, and to find solutions for Broward. We ask YOU to help us to take a stand for Broward against the national educational assault we are facing. Please listen to us as we speak to you... 

As education professionals… We love our jobs. We love to teach!  We love to inspire learning and creative thinking.  And… we love to be appreciated, trusted and paid as the educated professionals we are.

Let us teach with creativity and with honor to our practice and profession. This is what every student deserves!

This is why every teacher chose education as a career path… to serve kids and to impact their local communities.
Do not take away from us the ability to use the art and craft of teaching we happily share with the kids we love. Do not continue to require the new, ill-conceived trend of scripted, timed, packaged education, and repeated testing of students.
Please take away from us the mountain of unnecessary and overwhelming evaluation mandates, testing prep, paperwork and data collection instituted under the guise of evaluating both students and teachers. These are corporate influenced trends that continue to demoralize teachers, stress our students, stifle natural learning and will eventually bring an end to our profession and possibly to public schools as we know them, if they are allowed to continue unchecked. 

If you doubt my words... I encourage you to “FOLLOW THE MONEY!”  The cash trail of unfortunate laws and decisions crafted by politicians through… TESTING… on the backs of our young people and education professionals… with wealthy investors as benefactors will astound you.

Why is our money… our taxpayer dollars… money from OUR education coffers leaving OUR county… and the pockets and dinner tables of OUR employees and business owners and going to outside corporations that sell computers, testing, and test products?  One corporation in particular,Pearson, whose name is seen on the TESTS we hand our students… is an overseas company from England.  So why do OUR dollars from OUR children being tested go there? And it is not just OUR tax dollars in Florida… it is the tax dollars of our nation.

Please do not allow frivolous laws made by these misinformed lawmakers who listen to lobbyists, corporate investors, privateers and campaign contributors who benefit from the new “education reform” movement that drives… OUR tax dollars… away from public education to sway you!  Your DUTY is to true, artful, inspired, quality EDUCATION and that DUTY must continue to guide your decisions.REAL teaching and learning CAN NOT be replicated or replaced by computerstest prep, testing, temp teachers, massive new hires when once higher paid quality teachers flee, or VAM scores!  This is a false narrative and is driven by corporations and promoted by lawmakers. It attempts toblame teachers for the 
failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality through education. It asks Broward County to accept assessments, tests and evaluations created and imposed by corporate driven entities that have contempt for authentic teaching and learning to guide our instruction and determine what our teachers and students are worth.  I ask you to evaluate what is really happening here and say, Enough is Enough!  You will be saying it with tens of thousands of Broward educators, SBBC employees, their spouses, friends, neighbors, loved ones, and children.

And, please, not take from us our livelihood, and our hard earned retirement benefitsafter we have given to you and to our communities a lifetime of service. We have always been dedicated to improving the lives of KIDS and the quality of public EDUCATION.  Broward’s most qualified teachers, some because they are reaching the top of the pay scale, are being shamed and muscled out by laws like SB736 and demeaning evaluations. If this is to make room for a less experienced, and less expensive work force, it may be a way to divert a few dollars to educational profiteers, but is NOT the way to sustain quality educational  and economic stability for Broward.  Are our children not worth more than this? 

Thousands of QUALITY educators have fled their jobs, or retired, and we presently have a teacher shortage approaching 200 vacant positions. This is also a national trend! Is this good for our students and our schools?  NO!

Please do not continue allow any outside forces to rob us of the pride with which we have lived our lives and the dignity and honor we were promised at the ends of our careers if we gave to you, SBBC, our talents, our knowledge, our efforts, our craft and our youth. The people of Broward County have already received these gifts willingly from us. It is not in the best interest of those you serve, or of those we serve, to devastate so many Broward families by drastically cutting our ability to teach instinctively and our ability to provide a living wage for our own families, and economic stimulus to the Broward economy.  
WE are not JUST your employees!  

Remember… we are also the parents whose children are tested, the taxpayers whose money you collect and use. WE are the voters who go to the polls and must have confidence in you.  WE are ALL those things…  We stand together, as ONE, in this initiative.  Our VOICES must join!Together, we can send a message to those who wish to defund public education and who wish to take our tax dollars out of Broward County.  

Broward County teachers, like myself, on steps 17-25 have been most harshly treated for many years, placing us in dire financial situations. Lower steps have lost all hope to advance at a pace anywhere near what was promised them. Long years of service are now unforgivably ignored by SBBC.  Teachers in Broward have lost our homes, gone into foreclosure, filed bankruptcy, and still show up to teach every day wondering if we will be able to continue to provide for our own families. Held back for years by salary freezes during the recession… we were asked to be “team players”gaining little if any cost of living increases once minimal movement began. Cheated out of our standing with the school board, our peace of mind and our long awaited step increases in exchange for decades of quality work while awaiting our projected income that never came, many Broward educators have been emotionally and financially destroyed. Feeling robbed of our PAST, our FUTURE, our NOW and our DIGNITY by Broward’s application of law (SB736)  We are left unable to pay our rising food bills, taxes and insurance payments; our mortgages; our children’s college expenses;our basic needs; or even be certain of what retirement awaits us. Will it be welfare? This is NOT how WE, the parents, taxpayers, and voters want to treat the worthy educators and other employees who dedicatedly face YOUR most precious treasure… the young people of Broward County…OUR CHILDREN!  

SB736, which other Florida districts have been able to get around without devastating teacher steps and livelihoods seems to have been purposely designed to prevent some districts from providing its employees that which is owed to them.  While negotiating, decision makers in Broward either didn’t know how or did not want to find the way! This law poses a mandate to reward “highly effective”teachers on the “pay for performance schedule” to be given as much as the highest paid salary step increase within the teacher pay scale in every Florida county. While this sounds benign, it has harmed and defrauded Broward teachers, and it falsely presumes student testing as a means to determine teacher worth. This unfunded law must be challenged.
Firstly… testing is flawed.  Secondly… student testing CAN NOT determine the value of a teacher.  Thirdly… the faulty mathematical system (VAM) used to evaluate student test scores in an attempt to tie them to the value of a teacher’s teaching ability and student growth is not reliable… It FAILS students, teachers and communities.  National studies show this reform trend mostly FAILS and affects communities of poverty and communities of color.  This is unacceptable!  

A solution must be found.  

I suggest Broward serve as the state leader in finding one. This ill-conceived law that aids those who wish to defund public education through expensive tests, test scoring, test prep materials, mathematical VAM mayhem… shifting of hard earned public taxpayer dollars into private and sometimes foreign hands is a THEFT that cannot be tolerated by any self-respecting individual, and citizens in Broward will not continue to tolerate it. We hope you join us in our concern to the welfare of our students, employees and communities.  We are working tirelessly to bring this awareness to our communities!
Please lower testing and the dollars spent on it that go to wealthy corporations and pay our experienced teachers what you promised them in writing, and what they are owed.  

Please do not allow education in Broward to be… as this December 2014 Huntington Post article woefully describes it… “The Last Honeypot for Wallstreet.”

The financial industry's vigorous support of privatized education, however, aids its bottom line. Venture capitalists see big promise in the K-12 education market, estimated to be worth about $790 billion next year. Donald Cohen, executive director of think tank In the Public Interest, told The Nation, “It’s really the last honeypot for Wall Street.”

Please take whatever measures are necessary to FIND THE MONEY to stop this egregious and discriminatory practice resulting from a misguided and arbitrary law using student standardized test scores to wipe out our steps and promised salaries. This is within your power. WE expect you toFIND A WAY!

Sincerely, Terry Preuss, NBCT
NSU-SFWP Teacher Consultant
BTU Executive Board Member 2013-2016
President, Broward BATs Caucus of BTU
SBBC District Advisory Council 2011-2016
Mother, Teacher, Broward Voter, Concerned Citizen and Taxpayer