Teachers' union change stripped from education bill

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Senate Education Committee on Tuesday rejected a House proposal that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below half of the employees they represent.

The decision came as the panel voted unanimously to advance a major education bill (HB 7055) that is important to House leaders and contains a new state-funded scholarship program to let bullied public-school students transfer to private schools.

The “hope scholarships” would be funded by letting Florida motorists voluntarily agree to contribute money to the program when they buy or register vehicles. The donation would act as a credit against the sales tax they would normally pay in a vehicle transaction. The Senate proposes a $20 credit, while the House wants a $105 credit.

Other provisions in the bill include strengthening state oversight for publicly funded private-school scholarship programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and making modifications in the “schools of hope” program, which passed last year and encourages the expansion of charter schools to help students in persistently low-performing schools.

Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, offered the Senate version of the bill Tuesday in a wide-ranging amendment. It includes a Senate initiative that would dedicate more funding to mental-health services in the 67 school districts and a requirement that high school students take a financial literacy course to graduate.

But most of the debate was focused on a House proposal, which was included in Hukill’s amendment, that could result in teachers’ unions losing state certification if their membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent in the collective-bargaining process.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, proposed removing that language from the bill. Noting his mother spent a 36-year career as a teacher, Thurston said the provision was “unreasonable” and part of a continued “attack” on teachers.

He said students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland told him that one of the 17 victims of last week’s mass shooting at the school was a teacher who “jumped in front of the gunman” trying to save the students.

“These are the people we are targeting,” Thurston said.

Chris Emmanuel, representing the Florida Chamber of Commerce, testified against Thurston’s proposed change, saying unions that fall below the membership level would be able to seek recertification.

“What this measure does is ensure that the bargaining unit is represented by a union that has an adequate amount of their membership in it,” he said.

But most of the testimony was in support of Thurston’s proposal, including from Linda Edson, a retired Leon County fourth-grade teacher.

Edson, who spent more than 41 years in the classroom, said she was never a member of a teachers’ union, which is allowed under Florida’s “right to work” policy, but she still benefited from the union’s efforts.

“I’m tired of slapping the teachers in the face,” Edson said. “You need to think about what you’re doing to teachers.”

Rich Templin, representing the Florida AFL-CIO, warned that if local teachers’ unions are decertified, it could negate the contracts they have worked out with county school boards.

“And I don’t think anybody knows for sure exactly what is going to happen,” he said.

Thurston’s proposed change passed in a 5-4 vote, with two Republican senators, Tom Lee of Thonotosassa and David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, joining three Democrats on the committee in support.

Lee said he voted for the change because senators were not given enough information to determine the impact of the provision, including how many local teachers’ unions might fall below the 50 percent membership level.

With the limited time the committee had to evaluate the bill, Lee said there was “no way to get into the level of detail to ferret out exactly what we’re doing.” He also said there may be ways to modify the existing union decertification process without causing widespread disruption that critics say may occur if the House provision becomes law.

The debate over the teachers’ union provision is likely to be renewed when the bill next moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee.