Friday, February 09, 2007

Endangered Species: Teachers & Polar Bears. Who Will Disappear First?

Teachers like polar bears are an endangered species. Despite warnings as early as 1967 when 30,000 Florida teachers gathered on one hot August day in Orlando's Tangerine Bowl to protest lousy pay and crappy working conditions, nothing really was done. So in January 1968, Florida teachers went on the first statewide strike. Nearly 40 % of the teachers walked out. Unfortunately, living from paycheck to paycheck, the strike came to an end within weeks. However, during the strike teachers learned a very important lesson that they have carried with them to this day, passing it down to each new generation of educators: we are like those obscure frogs disappearing in the remote Amazon rain forests due to climate change. Not many people care. If they had, they would have supported us during the strike. According to Jane Arnold, the FEA president at that time, most teachers thought that "the public would be with us. We thought the strike would unite the community and the teachers. It did a little bit of the opposite...A lot of teachers lost their innocence. They thought the community liked them." Instead, taking their cues from the public, the Florida legislature got tough and would not vote teachers a pay increase. Teachers discovered they were on their own.

Much like polar bears today.

Actually, polar bears are getting more attention for their plight than teachers. The media is tripping and sliding across what ice is still left to get to them to tell their story. And why shouldn't they, you may ask. Didn't teachers in the Dade county schools recently agree on a new contract? That's true, but many teachers are not happy with the new deal and here's why:
  1. The Miami Education Review reports that the contract delivers approximately a 4.2% increase for the average educator, while the cost of living in Miami is given as 5.1%, leaving the average teacher $450 MORE behind at the end of the year. Shawn Beightol, who is running for president of the local teacher's union, reminds teachers that "this annual failure" to keep pace with the cost of living over the last decade has "resulted in a net loss of $7500 annually PER EMPLOYEE from what they were making in 1995. You are being driven to poverty by anemic bargaining."
  2. The Miami Herald reported that the new funding for Miami-Dade from the state is about $40 million below what it needed to be to deliver the $40k conditionally offered salary to new teachers in the new contract.

Something's got to give. If teachers can't make more money, they can't live and work here. Then what? Since it's illegal for public employees to strike, they probably will have to quit. Then who will teach the nearly 400,000 kids in the Dade County schools? Those that have been in the system for years will hang on until retirement. Who will replace them when the average cost of a house in Dade county is around $300,000?

MVB thinks this is a crisis as big as the one facing the polar bears. Maybe bigger because its impact will be immediate and not 30 or 50 years down the road. Because not much has changed in the way teachers are perceived by society, we think teachers may be forced to strike for a living wage to get the legislature and the public's attention. We think this will happen long before polar bears lose their ice.

And if teachers don't get what they want? Then the polar bears win. For now.

If you would like to help teachers in their effort to fight becoming extinct, please look here.

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