President Andy Ford 2009 FEA Delegate Assembly Remarks



Remarks by FEA President Andy Ford at the FEA Delegate Assembly in Orlando, October 16, 2009.



Thank you, and again, welcome to the 2009 Florida Education Association Delegate Assembly. Every year, when I stand before this assembly, I’m humbled by you and the members you represent. Every day, in schools across the state, Florida’s teachers, ESPs and higher education faculty provide our students with a world-class education.


You come to school every day, ready to teach and to help students realize their potential. You put in extra hours, at school and at home, to plan and prepare and make sure that you give our students every opportunity to succeed once the school day begins.


And you give not only your time and your talent, but also your heart and soul, to every generation of students who come before us. Most of us in this room have never considered education a job. We consider it a calling. A personal mission. A cause.


And this year, the cause of public education lost a great champion with the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy. He was a prolific legislative advocate for education and a fierce defender of public schools, teachers, higher education faculty, support professionals, and unions like ours.  And his spirit and example will guide the way for us — and for education supporters in Florida and across the country — as we tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities in front of us in the coming year and beyond.


But today, I am inspired by the words of another Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, who often said: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."


And today it is that vision, that relentless inspiration, that courage to dream that we embrace and celebrate as we gather here today and Imagine the Future when We Make Our Schools a Priority.


Over the past several years, the Florida Education Association has made tremendous strides. Our progress toward fulfilling the promise of the merger has been dramatic, and we have seen significant successes resulting from our growing unity and strength.


In the last year alone, think of what we have achieved and accomplished. When I stood before you here one year ago, we were on the verge of a historic election … and we dreamed what never was and asked “Why not?”


That dream was realized, and Florida exorcized our own political demons and helped lead the way to an extraordinary result, electing Barack Obama president of the United States.


But even as we celebrated that victory, our opponents were plotting their next assault on Florida’s public schools and within months we were once again engaged in a battle for survival against those who would dismantle public education and turn their backs on our kids. But we stood up again -- as we always do -- and fought back during the spring legislative session.


That battle left scars … and we certainly did not emerge unscathed. But when the dust settled, even if it hasn’t felt like it, we had saved hundreds of millions of dollars for our public schools and once again fought back the barbarians from the gate.


And as we stand here today and look forward, there is another battle looming ahead. The 2010 legislative session is around the corner and another election just beyond that. And at every turn, we will meet people committed to decimating school funding, sending public dollars to private interests and devaluing educators to weaken and divide us. And their agenda will have serious consequences … not just for us, but for the kids we serve.


Make no mistake: bigger class sizes, more testing, less time for student-teacher interaction, privatization, mandated paperwork -- whether on paper or a computer, inadequate resources, staff cuts and fewer class choices at the college and university levels will have a lasting negative impact on our children. And, as we always do, we will rise to the occasion, we will meet every challenge and we will stand up to every threat.

And we will do it together, because that is what this organization has become: one vision, one voice, one united force for education. And I’m proud to be a part of that. But instead of standing up here talking about the challenges and the threats, I want to focus on our shared vision for the future. I want to use our collective imagination to imagine that future when we make our schools a priority. And the bottom line is that any future that we can imagine starts with active and strong locals joined together making the Florida Education Association stronger. And so this is a time to turn our eyes to the future and focus on the promise of what we can achieve, together, for education and our members.


Emerging over the horizon, I see a Florida Education Association empowered by our renewed sense of unity, emboldened by our growing strength and energized by our common cause. Our journey toward a better future begins with one collective step: 140,000 pairs of feet stepping forward, in a thunderous announcement of progress.


Because together, we can meet any challenge, seize any opportunity and accomplish any goal that we set. Together, we are an unstoppable force for change.  And what does that change entail?


Let’s end the days that kids come to kindergarten not ready to learn. We need nutrition programs, health care and high-quality early learning opportunities, so that our kids get the right start.


Let’s make investments in rebuilding our schools and curriculum, from pre-K through graduate school, so that every student in Florida can attend a world-class school. And let’s invest in the economic engine that is Florida’s public schools, by maintaining the state’s commitment to smaller class sizes; by ensuring that professional educators receive professional salaries; by closing the achievement gaps and reducing the dropout rate; and by improving school quality across the board and making sure that every public school is as good as the best public school.


For me, that is core value at the heart of my passion for education. I believe that every student in Florida deserves the opportunity to attend a public school that’s just as good as the best public school in the state. And this is the time to make that dream a reality. And I believe we can. So what does that mean? And where do we start?


I believe it starts by getting behind a shared agenda: one that can help us realize our vision for the future to build and maintain exceptional schools for every student. And what would that agenda include? Let’s increase quality pre-K for Florida’s children. As educators, we know instinctively what study after study has demonstrated: that an emphasis on early education is critical for most students to ultimately read at grade level and master other basic subjects.


Nearly 25 years ago, Florida created the groundbreaking Prekindergarten Early Intervention program to help at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds. Since then, tens of thousands of at-risk children have benefited from this program. But years of neglect and antagonism from state leaders have weakened our Pre-K commitment, and now it’s states like Georgia, Wisconsin and New York that have emerged as leaders in the Pre-K movement. It’s time for Florida to reclaim that mantle and increase quality pre-K for our school children.


Next, let’s reduce class sizes and provide the staff and resources needed to intervene effectively with students who need extra help. Overcrowded classrooms are the most glaring indication we have that more investment in public schools is needed. Since the voters gave clear marching orders to our elected leaders in 2002 to lower class sizes for all students, they have been reluctant to embrace the idea and still haven’t fully implemented something voters placed in our state constitution seven years ago. And they still plot for the day when they can weaken those constitutional provisions.


And yet we -- and parents across the state -- don’t need statistics or research or so-called experts to tell us what we see every day: Everything about education benefits from smaller class sizes. Let’s ensure there are qualified employees in every school by paying teachers and ESPs professional salaries and providing quality job-imbedded training and professional development.


Teacher quality is the single most important factor in providing an excellent education for Florida’s students. The most effective teachers improve student success in the classroom for years to follow … and their lives for years to come.


And promoting quality teachers and staff means many things. It means quality professional development, mentoring and collaborative work environments to help teachers and education staff professionals realize their own potential and improve classroom performance. But it also means providing professional salaries and benefits, which are vital to recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest for our schools.

Let’s face it: Today’s talented young people have many options, and they -- like all of us -- must be treated like professionals in order to make education a viable career choice. And that starts with professional pay and benefits.


Next step: Let’s stop Florida’s abuse of testing. Reform the punitive assessment and school-grading system and make testing a genuine diagnostic tool for identifying students’ problems, rather than a tool to punish schools, belittle students and send public dollars to private institutions. In short, let’s stop looking at Florida’s students as FCAT statistics and let’s start treating them like individuals.


And finally, let’s provide a safe learning environment and a school atmosphere that maximizes the learning experience for Florida students. Those are five simple but critical steps toward advancing education and establishing a new beginning for Florida’s public schools.


And the sixth step -- and the one on which the other five depend -- is finding a way to pay for it all. We know that long-term improvements and investments in Florida’s public schools require increased funding and fundamental tax reform. Once stimulus dollars run out, Florida will again face a dangerous shortfall in education funding, and that dictates that Florida’s antiquated and unfair tax system be reformed.

We need increased and reliable school funding to establish long-term education success in Florida. At last year’s DA, we proposed a penny sales tax to fund education. And over the course of the next several months, that proposal became a rallying cry for education supporters across the state.


More importantly, it became a viable legislative alternative during this year’s difficult legislative session. As more people across the state learned about our penny proposal, we found that 77 percent of Florida voters would favor a penny sales tax if the funds were dedicated to public education. There was no consensus in the Legislature, but among the real people of Florida, the verdict was clear: The time has come for a penny sales tax dedicated to our schools.


In the coming months, we will continue to advocate for real tax reform and make sure that decisionmakers at the Capitol do what’s necessary to make our schools a priority.  To do that, though, education professionals and our supporters around the state must be united. This is the time to stand together. This is the time to seize our opportunity to build that more perfect union for our students: A place where the color of your skin or the choice of your faith doesn’t limit your options; where the neighborhood you live in doesn’t determine the quality of your education; where the job you have, as an educator, pays you enough to raise your family, get you health care, and provide security for your future; a place where educators are respected and where all elected officials make our schools a priority!


I know that’s what we all believe … and I know that we have the opportunity to make it happen. Together.


I started as an elementary school teacher. In fact, there was never anything else that I ever wanted to do. Every day that I walked in my classroom felt like a gift, because I was where I wanted to be, doing what I always dreamed of doing, and working with the children who were my most important priority.


And today, as President of FEA, even though the challenges are great and obstacles are many, each day remains a gift, because at the end of the day, that priority has not changed. When I go to be bed at night, I think not of what we have and how far we have come, but of what is yet to be achieved.


The challenges we face are enormous, but we can face them with the promise that success means nothing short of making the world a better place. And so we take stock of where we are today, we look back and celebrate all we have achieved. And we look forward, with hope and determination in our hearts …and Imagine the Future when We Make Our Schools a Priority.


Thank you very much.


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