Teachers are in short supply in Florida. Meanwhile, state makes them the villains | Editorial

·5 min read
Jose A. Iglesias/jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Florida should be rolling out the red carpet for public school teachers. It’s become increasingly hard to find people willing to endure low pay, the rising cost of living, lack of resources and the stress of running a classroom full of children — not to mention periodic active-shooter drills and the chance of actual school shootings.

There’s no single reason why educators are leaving the profession, and, likewise, no silver bullet for solving a teacher shortage affecting the entire nation. But demonizing educators — calling them leftist “woke” indoctrinators who want to brainwash children into hating their country — certainly won’t help Florida’s case. Yet that’s precisely the rhetoric coming from the highest echelons of state government in the past months.

The number of advertised teacher vacancies in Florida jumped 104% compared to pre-pandemic numbers, going from 2,135 in August 2019 to 4,359 in January 2022, according to the Florida Education Association. At the same time, universities are graduating fewer teachers. The number of education degrees granted annually in the United States peaked at 200,000 in the 1970s. In 2018-19, there were fewer than 90,000 degrees, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Ugly rhetoric

Gov. Ron DeSantis placates with one hand, approving $800 million for teacher pay raises this year. But with the other, he takes jabs at public education, his rhetoric turning teachers into the punching bags for conservative activists who have pushed to ban books and accused schools of inserting scary-sounding concepts like “gender ideology” and “critical race theory” into curriculum — which they do not.

Teacher shortages were a problem way before DeSantis came onto the political scene. But if the state is serious about addressing it, painting educators as villains is counterproductive.

Tuesday, the day before the 2022-23 academic year started in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, DeSantis told a crowd of supporters that college education programs are “overtaken by ideology,” the Sun Sentinel reported. That was one of the reasons he gave for wanting to expand a law he signed recently that sets up a process for veterans to obtain temporary teaching certificates, even if they don’t have a bachelor’s degree but have completed at least 60 hours of college credits.

The measure, approved unanimously in the Legislature, is a well-intended stop-gap measure to address the state’s teacher shortage; and the state should open doors for veterans who honorably served the country to pursue professional opportunities. Still, there are questions about whether this best serves students whose academic achievements could be in the hands of people with fewer qualifications than traditional teachers.

DeSantis’ new push appears to be a Trojan Horse to put more conservatives in classrooms. Teachers are no longer treated as heroes who nurture young people’s minds, but as members of a corrupt intellectual elite whom DeSantis must defeat to save American values, much like Donald Trump said he would “drain the swamp.”

The upcoming academic year will test new state requirements that micromanage what teachers say in the classroom. Instructions about race, sexual orientation and gender will be regulated by parental-rights laws such as one critics labeled “Don’t say gay.” It bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 or in a manner that’s not “age appropriate.” Another law DeSantis dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act” bans instruction about race and gender that “compels” students to feel guilt and anguish for being white or male, for example. What “compels” means exactly isn’t spelled out in House Bill 7 — vagueness appears to be its point.

Chilling effect

It’s unclear whether these state mandates are just rhetorical tools in DeSantis’ culture wars or if they will have any real impact in what’s included in school curriculum. School officials have said they don’t teach history in a way that makes white students feel responsible for slavery or segregation, for example.

But these measures could have a chilling effect in classrooms, with teachers policing themselves to avoid becoming targets of complaints by parents and conservative groups. That’s causing anxiety and anger among some teachers already facing so many other challenges, Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, the county’s teacher union, told the Herald Editorial Board. UTD has conducted webinars to explain the new laws and what rights educators have. Hernandez-Mats said she knows a teacher who quit her job out of fear she wouldn’t be able to have photos of her same-sex spouse on her desk.

“Teachers are truth tellers,” Mast said. “When you say they can’t be authentic . . . it’s not natural.”

It will be up to individual school districts to support teachers and ensure they have the freedom to teach without fear. This year’s elections will be crucial in Miami-Dade, as DeSantis is backing two candidates — Monica Colucci and Roberto Alonso — running for seats held by longtime Miami-Dade County School Board members. Colucci is running to unseat Marta Perez, whose perceived crime was voting for a mask mandate during the devastating delta wave of the coronavirus last year.

It seems clear that DeSantis’ plan is to control all levels of education policy, down to the most granular aspects of what’s said in classrooms. The ugly and demeaning depiction of teachers — who should be valued and courted by state leaders — is just part of his grand plan.