Teacher shortages. Crowded classrooms. Your vote affects education in Florida | Opinion

·4 min read

It’s showtime, and children in Florida are starting the new school year this week at a terrible disadvantage.

Florida teachers — those who stayed in their jobs and didn’t join the COVID-era exodus — are largely putting on the traditional happy face to welcome back the state’s 2.9 million public-school students.

But behind the gaiety of yellow school buses rolling in and the shrieks of friends reconnecting, reality is a mess.

Turns out there was only so much bullying, so much low pay, so much disrespect from parents and lawmakers that Florida teachers were willing to take. They left in droves, leaving serious teacher, para-professional and staff shortages — 9,500 unfilled vacancies statewide, according to the state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association.

DeSantis fuels hostility

The blame for the crisis rests squarely on the shoulders of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature.

Instead of addressing the teacher shortage that adversely affects us all, they spent the legislative session staging far-right culture wars to please their conservative base for the benefit of DeSantis’ political ambitions and midterm elections.

The governor’s politics-first education policies have contributed greatly to overworked and underpaid educators’ weariness. No, DeSantis apologists’ derisive claim that, “Nobody wants to be a teacher anymore,” is not true.

Teachers, including my oldest “Teacher of the Year” daughter, have left Florida for better pay and less politics, religion and government intrusion in their classrooms.

She most regrets leaving the ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) students she loved so much and their often lost parents, to whom she devoted countless hours in a city where Spanish isn’t common. But she has new ones to nurture in another state, where she’s better paid, better treated, and left alone to do what she does best within already-existing academic guidelines.

The crisis is a surprise to nobody in Florida’s education circles.

Now the governor wants to give teaching jobs to inexperienced, uncertified war veterans, retired cops and first responders, a slap in the face to teachers who underwent four years of college, internships and continuous education to specialize and recertify in their fields.

READ MORE: DeSantis wants cops, other first responders to help fill teaching vacancies

This is only more of the disrespect DeSantis has shown educators all year long in his attempt to turn schools into indoctrination camps for the conservative right with the “Stop WOKE” law that demeans Blacks and Black history and the “Don’t say gay” law that seeks to silence teachers, gay students and allies.

School was made comfortable for the white, straight and insecure student. Now they, too, have to deal with the consequences of a less-than education.

None of this will help children starting school this week.

Many of these students are walking into crowded classrooms. Others will be taught by administrators who will work with them two days to three days a week, an extra responsibility, thanks to DeSantis.

And administrators are jumping ship, too.

During the 2017-18 school year, before DeSantis became governor, the average class size in Florida public schools for teachers in self-contained classes was 18.9, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

On Monday, my honor-roll granddaughter started fourth grade in a public school classroom with 27 kids; her math class has 29. Imagine how much worse the overcrowding is for children with special needs and slower learners.

Use your vote

Every one of us owns a piece of the debacle.

This terrible moment in Florida education comes courtesy of voters. They ultimately decide when they cast votes for local and state offices the policies that will drive success or failure.

The teacher crisis shows how deep a dive Florida education has taken under DeSantis, who has appointed nothing but acquiescent politicians tied to private schools to lead the Department of Education.

Next week, we will be voting to either send DeSantis-backed candidates to the School Board or the better qualified candidates not endorsed by him, but backed by the teachers union. They know better. They’ve been warning of the looming teacher shortage — and nobody who could do something about it listened.

It isn’t in our children’s best interest to vote for people who foster a hostile atmosphere from which teachers will flee.

Until we vote more wisely, we owe a round of applause to the teachers who stayed.

They are the heroes, and here’s hoping that they get more of what they need and deserve from parents — respect — this school year.