Levy teachers rally with thousands

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By Kellie Parkin

Four Levy County teachers traveled to Orlando Saturday to join efforts with about 6,000 other educators, parents, and students from all over the state eager to get the attention of Florida lawmakers preparing to convene the 2009 legislative session. The message: Make Our Schools a Priority.

Rally supporters came together at the University of Central Florida Arena from as far away as the Panhandle and the southern-most tip of the state, and expressed solidarity by wearing matching group shirts, waving signs, and holding posters that declared “Education Cuts Don’t Heal” and “S.O.S. – Save Our Schools.”

While many carpooled, 88 buses – both charter and the traditional school bus –transported thousands of participants, according to rally organizers. Thousands of posters and banners glittered in the packed arena and several times the crowd broke into a unanimous chant of “No more cuts.”

Rebecca Mack, Chiefland High School computer teacher and FBLA advisor, and Hilltop Alternative School’s Patty Fortune both attended the rally because of concerns about funding education and special programs.

“I’m worried about the school system, the jobs, the kids,” Fortune said. “I’m afraid they’re going to cut programs that children really need,” she said, citing Hilltop’s Teen Parent program as just one example of an indispensable program that works for students.

Marcia Baughn, a hospital/homebound teacher for Levy County students, is worried that public education is at its limit and that any more funding cuts would result in an erosion of academic achievement. Florida ranks near the bottom of per pupil spending in the United States and yet students rank 10th in nation for academics. “We do a great job of educating our kids. But how much longer can this go on?” Baughn said.

Cindy Roach agreed that Florida schools are underfunded and lamented the dismal per pupil spending. “This is embarrassing,” said the Cedar Key and Chiefland reading specialist. Roach is also the Levy County Educators Association President. She finds the lack of funding in contrast to the many other successful educational initiatives throughout the state. “(Florida education) is on the cutting edge for so many things.”

Sponsored by the Florida Education Association, the rally hosted speakers representing many areas of the education system, including a superintendant, a school board member, the presidents of Florida’s NAACP, PTA, and FEA, and a UF graduate student studying to become a teacher. State Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, was also in the line up.

The speakers frequently addressed “Mr. Politician” – the faceless, nameless, big-business corrupt man that sits in a comfortable leather chair in Tallahassee – demanding that he support education and put students first. Nearly all of them repeated the phrase, “Mr. Politician, make our schools a priority.”

“A teacher’s job is to teach,” Orange County Public Schools Superintendant Ron Blocker told legislators. “And your job is to find the money” for that to happen. Blocker, who leads the 11th largest school district in the nation, said that the budget crisis has served as a catalyst for unity. “There is a silver lining,” he said. “This has united us.” Blocker assured the crowd that some lawmakers do have students’ best interest in mind. “Not every legislator is a deadbeat dad. Some of them really do care.”

Another Levy County resident in attendance said she was frustrated with the government’s response to the budget crisis. “I’m surprised at how the public is in agreement, but the legislators are the roadblock,” said Beth Roach, Chiefland resident and regional FEA representative. “The people are for education, and it’s our government that’s against it.”

FEA President Andy Ford told supporters that they must make their voices heard. Parents, teachers, and everyone who values education can help the cause, he said. He encouraged people to write to their legislators, send letters to the editors of newspapers and call in to talk radio shows.

“Today is a good start,” said Ford. “But we’re a long way from finished.”

Cindy Roach said the main message she took away from the rally is that people need to participate in the political process in order for change to happen. “If you’re not going to come to the table, you’re not going to eat,” she said. “If people don’t get out and make a difference, we’re dead in the water.”