While education should not be partisan, it is most definitely political. From dictating what can, and cannot, be taught to developing laws that constrain pay raises for experienced teachers, politicians have inserted themselves into every aspect of public education in Florida.
For the past few legislative sessions, members of FEA’s Republican Cadre have been working to build relationships with their legislators in the hopes of influencing legislation in a positive way.
On this episode of Educating from the Heart, we sit down with three members of the cadre to discuss their challenges and successes and the importance of every educator joining in union to advocate for what is best for students.
Mary Rivera, Marion County Middle School ELA teacher
Shiela Watson, Suwannee County PreK-MTSS Coordinator
Patrick Strong, President Okaloosa Education Staff Professionals
Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA president Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit feaweb.org/podcast
Sharon Nesvig: You’re listening to Educating from the Heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.
Tina Dunbar, Host: Welcome back! I’m Tina here with Luke. So good to be with you again.
Luke Flynt, Host: Always great to be with you, Tina. We have made it through another legislative session. Again, this year education was a focus of the governor and of lawmakers and the partisan divide was quite evident, especially when it comes to issues dealing with race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Tina: Yes. This session was a bit unusual, especially being a year in which many of these legislators, including the governor, are up for reelection. Normally, it’s business as usual: legislators, rush in, quickly move through session and head straight to the campaign trail, but it was quite different this year.
I’m telling you, Luke, Florida is caught up in this nationwide trend of public education attacks. And parents are being used as a tool to create a major divide between educators and the communities where they work and live. Even worse, the result could have a negative impact on students, teachers and the entire school community.
It’s why it’s so important for all school employees to feel empowered, to speak up and advocate for themselves throughout the school year, talking about what’s going on in their schools and what’s happening with their students. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the job or you’re experienced, if you’re a teacher, a custodian, or if you’re a Democrat or Republican.
Luke: Absolutely. It is so important that every educator speak up, but they should not do it alone. It is so helpful to have a strong group of supporters or an organization like the FEA and its local affiliates standing beside them. On this episode we’ll talk with a group of Republican educators who chose to join their union and work with other like-minded colleagues to raise awareness and redirect education policy.
Mary Rivera, Patrick Strong, and Sheila Watson are all educators and members of FEA’s Republican cadre. The three of them are focused on influencing legislation as they advocate for a pro public school agenda, one that will benefit all children in Florida. We start the conversation with Mary Rivera talking about the inception of the Republican cadre at the FEA statewide meeting in 2018 where she worked to pass a new business item, or an NBI, to create the cadre.
Mary Rivera: I was part of the committee that composed the NBI (new business item) in 2018. I think it’s important for educators to be activists for public education because god knows that the public is not advocating for us. So, I thought it was an important venture to get Republican members specifically involved in the political process because we’re so Republican heavy in Tallahassee, and who best to communicate with these Republican leaders than Republican members of their delegations?
And so, we wrote the NBI specifically to get Republican educators in Tallahassee to speak to their local representatives on behalf of public education and on behalf of labor unions across the nation.
Tina, Host: You’ve been a key member of the cadre for several years now and had multiple opportunities to talk with your legislators on education issues that are important to you and your colleagues. What has surprised you the most about your conversations?
Mary Rivera: They have deaf ears to educators in general. And we thought it was important that members of their kind communicate with them the fact that Republicans are teachers. There are teachers who are Republicans; it’s not just a Democratic population of the workforce in the state. It’s a group of people who care about kids and who care about teaching and our society and that we have needs, we have desires. And we’re part of them. We’re part of that organization, the Republican party, and that we want to be represented equally, as well as the Democratic Delegation, and we’re not being heard.
So, through the Cadre our voice has been loud and clear and has really opened doors for us as an educated community, as well as a union. Our voice just gets more loud and more powerful. And our mission is being heard and shared throughout the state.
Tina: I’m sure that you are aware of this perception that the union is the right arm of the Democratic party, and there’s no place in any union for Republican members. Sheila, how would you respond to that?
Sheila Watson: I think that’s what, um, propelled me to make the step to represent on the cadre was just that idea that when we sat at the table and had those conversations, we are Republicans, however, we are a part of our union and do support the work that’s being done there to advocate for us. And to see the look and the response that we got to that oftentimes was “no way that doesn’t happen.”
Well, yes it does. And, and we feel like this is the way that we can make our voice heard through conversations with like-minded individuals. And I think that’s sitting at the table sometimes when they would hear those first few words of, “well, I’m a Republican union member.” Maybe they listened a little more carefully to what I had to say, because they automatically recognize that some of our standpoints and foundational issues were similar and that we looked at things with the like mindset.
And so maybe we did have more in common than they thought. So, they were willing to listen to what we had to say without tuning it out automatically because we represented a different party than they belong to. We were able to bridge that gap in a way that I think was different than had we sat at the table automatically with a defense mechanism in place had we been from an opposing party.
Luke: So, I asked Patrick a similar question to what Sheila just answered, but with a slightly different spin on it. Sheila talked about how the cadre has engaged with Republican lawmakers and how that has opened up some avenues, but I’m wondering about the membership and in a place, especially like Okaloosa that we know is very red.
And do members sometimes say, “oh, well, you know, I’m a Republican,” or I should say potential members, give a reason that they don’t want to join, “Well, I’m a Republican and I don’t want to be a part of this Democratic organization.” Do you hear that objection, and if so, how do you respond to it when you’re trying to get someone to join with us to advocate for public education.
Patrick Strong: So, you must have read my mind because as Sheila was talking, I was thinking that we have kind of an idea that unions are always, uh, Democrat, and, you know, in Okaloosa we have about as many Republicans as we do Democrats in our local union. And then there’s the rest of the registered members are independent. So, I always try to express that when you approach somebody if they’ve heard that over and over and over that union support things that, you know, they might not support you usually get a very strong negative, initial response from them.
What I’ve done in the past to just show them over a period of time that the majority of the things that we stand for we can agree on. And when it comes to students and how we treat them in the classroom and how we teach them and how we take care of the facilities that they use and how we feed them at lunch and how we get them to school on buses, that’s all common interest for all of us. So, when we talk about those issues, we all want the same thing.
Tina: Yes, there are many issues that we share in common, but there are also a few foundational issues that we have vast disagreement on. For example, privatization, when you talk with your members or even legislators about privatization, which some would say is being advanced to hurt the union, I mean, have you talked with your legislators about this or even vouchers? What does that conversation sound like?
Sheila: Even in a party amongst ourselves that we can agree on some things and disagree on some other major things. And one of those things is that, you know, we brought to the table as far as, you know, the talk around bonuses and getting rid of those and moving towards increasing the base pay and working on salary schedules.
Because we brought it from a standpoint that they could understand the physical responsibility, that we’re not just asking more to do less with, or to throw things away irresponsibly, that we budget our households much like they do, and so we would expect the same in the educational realm. And so, we brought those things to light as well that some of the things that have been tried that we’re expanding and increasing and vouchers and have not had a return on them and the way that they have proposed that they would in the beginning.
And so, if we’ve not seen a return on that, then the proper answer to that is not to continue to throw more at it but to look at the accountability piece of it and to recognize that you are comparing apples to oranges. And so, as long as the guidelines are not the same, then you cannot compare the two and a grading schedule.
And so we have brought those conversations to light. Obviously, you know, it’s kind of like with anything, sometimes we plant the seed and then we continue to water that seed to make them think about things. But it seems to be that the response is a little bit better received coming from somebody that they already have some like-mindedness with than someone who they seem vehemently opposed to from the get-go.
But we know like with anything with bonuses and salary structures, that was a seed that was planted, and we watered it and we had conversations amongst multiple individuals on that side of the aisle, but in a way that made sense to them because we think somewhat similarly to them and some of those issues.
And so we felt like that too, once we’ve kind of bridged that gap there and had conversations with them that led to some things that we agreed with and some things we didn’t agree with that then we could push for more once we had built those relationships.
Mary: And also, I wanted to add to that. In meeting with several of my representatives last season, “choice” was a key word that they wanted to bring up. And unfortunately, the choice isn’t a fair choice, everyone has the opportunity to make that choice, but it’s not a fair choice to make when the options available to them are not accessible to them. My kids are out at the Ocala National Forest. Many of them do not have internet access and they don’t have a choice to do virtual programming because they don’t have access to it. And it needs to be equitable. And it’s not.
Tina: We talk a lot about choice as if it’s something available to all, but it’s not at least not provided in the same way. Some parents intentionally choose public education yet the majority of our political leaders don’t seem to respect that choice. Wouldn’t you agree?
Patrick: So, we kind of have to go back in history a little bit for me. My wife is a 32-year teacher, and I’ve been associated with the district for about 18 or 19 years now. So, when my wife was first a teacher I said, “you know, there’s no need to join the union because some of those things like privatization stuff that kind of sharpens your skills.”
So, after I got involved with public education, I quickly learned the problem is there’s not an even playing field. And I think we saw that last time with Trump’s administration, to be honest with you, he said we don’t have an even playing field with China and stuff with our trade.
So, when we bring that into public education, and private schools are getting grants, and they’re getting all of our maintenance funds, and they’re getting 95% of our FTE, and they don’t have any standards that they have to live up to, or they don’t have to have certified teachers, and they don’t have to pay the teachers any specific amount. I mean when, when you can’t even measure, how can you say they’re doing as good a job for us?
And one of the biggest things for me, because I’ve been an education support professional for the last 18 years in an EBD classroom, and those ESE students are very near and dear to my heart. And I tell you what, they can’t go to a private school because if they try to, they’re immediately kicked back out, and they come back to a public school. So, I always say to have apples and apples, they have to take every student that comes to them. You know, I’ve often said with the local schools here that are privatized, I said, “you give us their students and they take our students.” Student for student, we could do a better job every day of the week.
Luke: Absolutely. One area where it seems like we should be able to get all Republicans on board is the idea of local control. One thing we’ve heard a lot about from our state during the Biden administration is the federal overreach and how detrimental that is. But it seems like Tallahassee has no problem overreaching, you know, telling the school districts you can’t even determine the salaries anymore.
Telling school districts you cannot determine the length of employment contract for someone anymore. And I’m wondering what those conversations have sounded like. And I know you’ve had them, right. So, the question isn’t “have you even talked with your Republican lawmakers about local control?” but “what do those conversations sound like?” And Mary, I see you raising your hand.
Mary: They’re snide, to sum them up in a word. The conversations are very snide. They know that they’ve taken the power away through legislation. We no longer have fair bargaining opportunity, and at the local levels, many of your school boards are putting an even tighter rein on it. And with the legislative changes, you know, a certain percentage has to go here, and a certain percentage of that has to go there: They’re not leaving us any room to bargain.
And your veteran teachers, we’re not being treated fairly, equitably. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but my colleagues who have been teaching 10 to 15 years are only making $50 to $500 more than first year teachers because of this legislation regarding to $47,500 [starting teacher pay.] It’s not fair. And people were dropping like flies.
We have so many openings here in Marion County, and I know it’s across the state as well. So many openings, so many classrooms that do not have certified educators in them because of the pay situation. And so many teachers who have resigned and retired prematurely to seek employment elsewhere where they can make financial gain through experience that they cannot make here because of legislation.
Tina: Patrick, do you have any thoughts about that?
Patrick: Specifically, this year it’s been so obvious because the governor has taken the local control in certain situations that that are even more obvious than the subtle $47,500 starting teacher pay. The mask mandate was one where there were several counties throughout the state of Florida that were in turmoil because the COVID rates were so high and, you know, I think in Okaloosa County we may have been a little bit different. But that was something where he pulled that at the state level and said, “I’m going to be in control, and I know best.”
And I feel like as, as a conservative Republican… and I’ve advocated for this, my whole life. My father was a 48-year city commissioner here in the city of Valparaiso. And we studied laws that the state passed to look at the potential impact it had on local decision-making power. And that was, in my opinion, that type of decision is just an outright blatant attack on the basic tenants we have as Republicans.
Sheila: Those are I think the struggles that we faced because we see it from a standpoint of that power balance, you know. I know from, from our local, the standpoint is now that I know things, I might do things differently and respond to things differently. Now that I’ve seen things kind of play out and things that we’ve learned along the way.
But I think that when we join our voices together with our local government and we speak up with our superintendents and with our local school boards to say these decisions should be able to be made locally, I think that those two voices together obviously are stronger than when it’s just as as union members crying out or just the local school boards. And so I think that that is a commonality that we have, and I feel like in our local rural districts, like where I’m at, it’s definitely noted that their support is there and that they are speaking out and they are saying, as superintendents and as school boards, you know, “Leave these decisions up to us.”
We tend to, um, have great conversations and great relationships with our constituents. And so we feel like we can better judge the temperature of the water here than you can from there, so allow us to do so.
Stephanie Kunkel: I just wanted to echo a little bit of what Sheila just said. One of the things that really works, especially when our Republican Cadre members come to Tallahassee and they get to meet with lawmakers and small groups and they represent all areas across the state, one of the things that’s really critical is getting a meeting as a constituent with a Republican lawmaker. And there are definitely Republicans that we still have difficulties getting into their offices. As we look to grow the Republican Cadre that we’re ensuring that we have at least one, if not more, Republican Cadre members in all 120 districts in the House and all 40 districts in the Senate. And that is something that our local presidents, as well as our current union members and our current Republican Cadre members can certainly help with.
Tina: Do you believe we would be more powerful in our advocacy if we had more Republican members engaging?
Sheila: I would say yes. As long as we’re a heavy red state, in certain areas, I think because the common misconception that we get all the time is “what you’re a union member and a Republican. Huh? How can that be?” And so, I think that if they saw more Republican members engaged, that we would not seem such as a minority, but more like a temperature gauge for what the majority really wanted.
I think that when we have less engaged Republican members, they tend to take what the union has to say as, “You’re only representing a small percentage of the people, and they’re Democratic.” And so, when the Republicans speak up, it’s kind of maybe tends to allow them to scratch their heads a little bit more to think about what is being said, that it’s not one small section of people saying, but really in general, a lot more of the population feels this way as well.
Tina: Well, Luke, we have to give kudos to this group of members and celebrate the cadre’s success. When Florida first started down the path of increasing teacher’s salary to $47,500, Sheila and a few other cadre members began advocating for a certified pre-K teachers, basically they were saying they worked just as hard as other teachers educating our youngest learners and they’re not baby-sitters: They deserve a decent salary.
Luke: You got that right. While there is still much work to be done on the teacher salary increase allocation. Now pre-K teachers are eligible to receive that salary enhancement. That is a sign that state leaders are listening to FEA members and the Republican cadre. They have also addressed the inequities of receiving bonuses over a pay raise. Our guests all agree on the importance of forming relationships, really creating that opportunity to meet with and spend time educating elected officials so they understand the human impact of the laws that they pass.
Tina: It really is up to all of us, and we want to encourage all educators to get involved. Both locally, that’s at home in your legislative districts, talking with your school board members and your legislators. This is an election year, and no one can afford to ignore politics because if you do, you’re doing it at your own peril.
Luke: That is so true. And that’s true, regardless of party affiliation. You know, it really doesn’t matter if you as an educator are interested in politics or not politicians insert themselves into every aspect of your life. Certainly, it is up to voters to hold them accountable. But remember session is only 60 days long. Voting is one day. That leaves 304 other days in the year that are just as important. Now is the time for every educator across the state to be reaching out to their legislators, thank them for what they did well and hold them accountable for the areas where they fell short.
Tina: You can make a difference. To learn how you can get more involved in advocacy efforts around public education go to FEAweb.org or find us on social media @FloridaEA. Thanks for listening and, until we meet again, keep educating from the heart.
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Sharon: Educating from the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators