Florida’s statewide teacher’s union is once again suing the legislature—this time over a new law that could directly impact its membership. It’s the latest in a line of lawsuits filed over the state’s education policies.
The Leon County Classroom Teachers Association is on a mission to boost membership. Current levels are hovering around 40 percent. The last time the local union was above 50 percent was 15 years ago. But LCTA President Scott Mazur says the low membership figure doesn't indicate a lack of support. Instead, he says there's a sense of complacency that seems to have set in about benefits gained through 40 years of negotiations.
“That covers every thing from how much someone pays for healthcare," Mazur says.
"There’s so many pieces of that contract that have been advocated for over the years, that it’s hard for people to realize the magnitude of work that’s gone into it and a lot of people just expect it because they don’t know the history.”
The bigger problem is pay. LCTA members pay $753 a year in dues. Teachers get paid once a month, and while the district average is $42,000 a year, Mazur says a starting teacher can expect to make around $36,000. State law mandates three percent of that pay get automatically diverted to a retirement plan. Then there’s health insurance, dental and other costs that come out of those paychecks. Not to mention federal taxes. So, by the time it’s all said and done, a single teacher just starting can expect to take home around $2,200 a month.
“It’s year-round services and advocacy. But there’s only 10 payments. And it only being once a month in terms of getting paid, that makes it [union dues] look even greater. But when you work it out to a daily portion, it’s a little over $2 a day for your union dues."
Still, costs add up. The average price of a two bedroom apartment in Tallahassee is near a $1,000 a month.
Mazur is hoping to get his membership numbers up to 55 percent by the end of the next school year because under a new law, local unions that fall below 50 percent participation of eligible members could get shut down. They have to go through a process called recertification.
Public employees, police, firefighters and others are exempt. And that’s a big problem for the Florida Education Association, or FEA, which has historically challenged Republican-led legislative policies it views as hostile to teachers and public education.
But the statewide union has a mixed record of success when challenging the legislature. The FEA is being represented by attorney Ron Meyer who believes the organization is on solid ground this time. Its lawsuit includes union members and non-members and collective bargaining rights are in the state’s constitution.
"Our lawsuit asserts on behalf of those individual plaintiffs as well as those represented by the unions that those rights are being diminished and impaired by this law," he told reporters recently during a conference call announcing the suit. "We believe if those people don’t have standing, no one has standing.”
Yet others see the suit as more of the same.
“I can’t remember a time since I’ve been in the senate that we haven’t had a lawsuit over education or education funding," says incoming Senate President Bill Galvano. He says at any time the legisalture is dealing with 10-12 lawsuits, not all related to education. But he does expect more education-related suits during his tenure. And his counterpart, incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, is more direct:
“It doesn’t surprise me they’re filing a lawsuit and chances are over the next few years they’re going to have many more reasons to file lawsuits," he said.
Under Republican leadership for the past 20 years, the state has steadily been growing alternatives to traditional public schools. Supporters see programs like publically funded but privately managed charter schools, and private school vouchers for low-income students as keys to expanding parental choice. Opponents like the teachers union view those as diversions of public money to private groups—an effort to privatize education. The FEA has also opposed the elimination of tenure for new teachers, efforts to tie evaluations to student test scores and tie bonuses to student performance as well. All of those lawsuits were unsuccessful.