I was not always an education advocate. Like many of you I didn’t even pay attention to education issues. Then I had kids. Suddenly everyone asked the same question: Where will they go to school? I realized it was something I’d have to figure out. What were my choices? (Pay special attention to that word “choice.”)
As I learned, there were many choices. There was my zoned neighborhood school. Then there were magnet schools with lottery systems to determine who gets in. And of course, there were private schools.
Having attended both public and private schools I knew that private school doesn’t necessarily provide a superior education to public school. Ultimately, we decided to enter the lottery and apply for what’s known as a “fundamental school.” These are public schools that have mandatory homework, stricter dress codes, stricter discipline policies and mandatory parental involvement. The fundamental schools in our county are generally ‘A’ rated schools, and at the time, I thought that grade meant something.
We celebrated when my daughter got a spot in the kindergarten class. When the school PTA needed a volunteer who was good with numbers, I raised my hand, happy to lend my accounting skills to a good cause. I loved it. We had a wonderful community of involved parents and amazing teachers. Because of this, our school usually had everything it needed. Parents were more than willing to fill teacher wish lists. If the district was unable to provide something, our families did.
I began to wake up during my daughter’s first grade year, when she no longer had recess. According to the school district, there wasn’t enough time for recess because the Florida legislature had passed laws essentially dictating how every minute of every day was to be spent in our public schools. For example, my daughter spent 180 minutes on English Language Arts and a certain amount of time on science and math, instructional time which, as we were told, was critical to prepare children for testing.
You may be wondering why they were so concerned about testing when students in first grade aren’t tested. Because the school’s grade and funding are tied to test scores, the children are constantly evaluated to see how they will perform on future tests. And that meant that there wasn’t time for recess. I wasn’t the only parent unhappy about this.
All over Florida, there was a growing movement to allow our elementary school children to have recess every day. After several years, legislation mandating recess finally passed the legislature. Why did it take so long since the bill had overwhelming support from the community and legislators? It was hard for me to understand who would be opposed to children receiving 20 minutes of unstructured free time.
I began to get more involved in the legislative process. I joined the county PTA and served on the legislative committee, and started meeting with legislators to discuss PTA priorities. Before long, I was meeting other passionate education advocates in my community and across the state.
But the more time I spent around our legislature the more frustrated I got. Florida has the 5th largest budget in the country, yet we are 45th in teacher salary and 44th in per pupil spending. Each legislative session, we were back, again, pleading for funding. Then there is the state’s ever-expanding voucher program, which allows parents to take a certain amount of tax-payer money and attend a private school. While the legislature regulates every minute of the day at public schools like the one my daughter attends, the private schools in the now $1 billion Florida voucher program operate with no oversight at all. They are not subject to the same testing requirements. The teachers do not have to meet the same criteria as those in public schools. The schools can also deny children admission to their school or dismiss them from the school for a variety of reasons that would not be acceptable in a public school system.
At this point I really don’t know what the goal of our legislature is. Why does the Florida Legislature consistently divert funds from our public schools to these voucher schools? Do they simply not want to fund education? Do they or their families have ties to people who profit from the privatization of our schools? While 90% of Florida’s students attend public schools, our legislators seem laser focused on expanding the voucher system and convincing the public that their schools are bad. Article IX of the Florida Constitution states that “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida,” but that point seems lost on our legislators.
Our public schools are in a dangerous place. We have a massive teacher shortage. There are approximately 4,489 teacher vacancies right now, and it is projected that there will be 9,000 teacher vacancies by the end of this year. Why would a teacher come to our state where our pay is 45th in the country, a full $10,000 below the national average? Why would they come to Florida where there is legislation to prevent them from teaching topics that might make someone uncomfortable? Proposed legislation would put cameras in the classroom and allow them to be sued. Why would they come to a state where you are not allowed to acknowledge the existence of our LGBTQ youth? Our state needs to do everything it can to support teachers, treating them like the professionals that they are─but there’s no sign of that happening in Florida.
Instead of focusing on how to strengthen public education, our elected officials seem intent on distracting us with manufactured outrage about critical race theory and book banning. Critical Race Theory is not being taught in our schools and we should all have the freedom to allow our children to read. Just because a parent is uncomfortable with a book does not give them the right to dictate what my child can or can’t read. I guarantee that your children have access to much worse content on their phones than any content that is currently in a public school library.
I urge you to stand up for our public schools. Stand up for our teachers. Do not let them distract you with fake outrage. We need to come together to ensure that our elected officials protect the education of our children. This is what is right for our community, our state and our country.
Raegan Miller lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. A certified public account, she is the parent of two school-aged children. Raegan became an active member of her local PTA unit as soon as her oldest child started kindergarten. Through her work with PTA, she became involved with the Recess Movement in Florida, a grassroots effort by parents across the state to get recess implemented for all Florida elementary school students. Raegan has served in leadership positions for a countywide and statewide pro public education advocacy organizations and has worked on and volunteered for campaigns to get pro public education candidates elected in Florida.