Manatee teachers join statewide ‘walk-ins’ to highlight funding in public education

Schools across the nation are struggling to hire educators, and the existing teachers often work overtime to support their classrooms and families.

Teachers are exasperated, but Florida law denies public employees the ability to strike. Instead, nearly 400 campuses in 44 counties held “walk-ins,” a demonstration by the Florida Education Association and local teachers unions on Wednesday morning.

Before they started work, about 45 people gathered outside Southeast High School in Bradenton to share coffee and a mutual goal: more support for public education. FEA and its local counterpart, Manatee Education Association, are pushing for an increase of 10 percent — $743 per student — to improve a historical deficit.

Florida is among the lowest 10 states for education funding, according to the statewide teachers union.

“At the very least, provide them funding so they don’t have to work two other jobs outside of school, and we can be fully staffed,” said Shelly DeCesare, an assistant principal at Southeast High.

Union leaders staged walk-ins just two weeks before the 2019 legislative comes to an end, a last-ditch effort to garner support.

Neither of the current proposals for K-12 funding in Florida — an increase of $1.1 billion in the Senate, and $579 million in the House — would meet the unions’ request. And even if legislators did approve the full amount, Florida would remain below the national average for education spending, according to the FEA.

DeCesare said the increase on local property taxes, approved by Manatee County voters last year, helped to slow the tide of educators who moved to Sarasota or Hillsborough counties.

And while the state allocates money for low-income students at her Title I school, existing support falls short of the school’s many needs. DeCesare keeps a stockpile of food and clothes in her office, helping to meet the everyday needs of her students.

The ultimate goal, she said, is to have more teachers and smaller class sizes. Whether a child is exceeding expectations or struggling to keep up, both need personal attention.

“More money helps because this is time away from our own families,” she said. “These kids have us — we’re their families, too.”

Michael Brooks, a science teacher at Southeast High for more than 15 years, joined his peers in wearing a red shirt, adorned by white apples and a unified message: MEA Cares. “Red for Ed” is a grassroots campaign sparked by teachers throughout the country, inspiring Wednesday’s attire.

Brooks decried the use of public funds at for-profit charter schools, a sentiment shared by Manatee’s union leader, Pat Barber.

“We would like them to stop funding the few students that are in charter schools, shortchanging the two million students in public schools,” Barber said.

Money from the state is restricted to certain uses, and the most flexible type of funding is called a “base student allocation,” which goes into the district’s general fund, Barber said. The school board could put extra money toward higher salaries, new teachers or better security.

And while classroom supplies are not a focal point of the local movement, several people at Southeast High said they spend between $400 to $500 of their own money to support students each year.

Extra money could support the experiments in Brooks’ science class, or the everyday needs of other teachers throughout Florida.

“If we want to do better, the Legislature has to do better,” Brooks said.