Bill Cotterell: DeSantis’ schools plan is political payback

Gov. Ron DeSantis is getting even with Florida’s teacher unions.

DeSantis speaks at a press conference in Daytona Beach Shores.

DeSantis speaks at a press conference in Daytona Beach Shores. Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The French, known for their clever bon mots and culinary expertise, gave us the well-known saying that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” And so it is that Gov. Ron DeSantis is coldly getting even with Florida’s teacher unions.

And he’s flavoring his payback plan as a “Teacher’s Bill of Rights,” meant to empower them as it cripples their bargaining units. Not that the teacher unions haven’t done all they can to earn the governor’s vengeance.

DeSantis recently announced his education package for the legislative session starting in March, highlighting an additional $200 million with which he proposes to boost teacher salaries. That brings the total for teacher pay to about $1 billion in next year’s budget, and county school districts would be allowed to decide how to disburse the money. Some will raise starting salaries, attracting young teachers into the profession, while other counties will reward long-serving educators and keep them in the classroom.

That’s the pretty part.

This attractive appetizer comes with several less-tasty provisions that reflect partisan politics more than education policy. DeSantis wants to end the automatic deduction of union dues by teacher unions. And he thinks a bargaining unit that can’t enroll 60 percent of the eligible educators shouldn’t be certified as the voice of the teachers. 

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With Florida being a “right to work” state, meaning nobody has to join a union as a condition of employment, this amounts to a double whammy for labor’s side of the bargaining table. It makes it more convenient for teachers to avoid union dues every month, while raising the bar for unions to get a seat at the table.

But that’s not all the DeSantis package does. He wants an eight-year term limit for school board members, a requirement for unions to make annual financial reports to the state, with state auditors authorized to investigate for fraud, and no union officials could be paid more than the highest-paid member of a bargaining unit. The unions also would be forbidden to distribute materials on school property and teachers would be forbidden to do any union work during working hours.

To rub it in, teachers who choose to join up would sign forms acknowledging that they don’t have to, and unions would annually have to tell members how much their membership is costing them. All of this is meant to assure only the most fervent pro-labor teachers will join.

Management aside, the politics behind it couldn’t be more obvious. The DeSantis education plan this year also seeks to have school board candidates run with party labels. No more non-partisan races.

To be sure, the Florida Education Association has for decades been a mainstay of the Democratic Party. Candidates flock to its conventions, seeking the FEA endorsement. Public schools are the most important (and expensive) function of government, and just about everybody in Florida has some connection to the classroom. It was no coincidence that when Democrat Charlie Crist needed a running mate, in his race against DeSantis last year, he picked the president of the United Teachers of Dade, Karla Hernández-Mats.

If revenge should be a cold dish, another old dictum seems appropriate for the governor’s get-even plan: If you throw a spear at a monarch, you dare not miss. The teacher unions tried to take out DeSantis last year, and missed by almost 20% of the vote on Nov. 8. 

With Republicans now holding supermajorities in the Legislature, DeSantis can give them their just desserts when the House and Senate convene March 7.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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