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Gov. Bush, why can't you support the Florida Center for Teachers?

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002


Dear Gov. Jeb Bush:

I will not waste your valuable time with a lot of detail. We know the story.

"Like many other Florida residents who support our public schools and real learning, I am disappointed you vetoed the $275,000 allocation for the Florida Center for Teachers."

The above words were the lead of a column I wrote this time last year about your vetoes following the end of the annual ordeal we call the legislative budget process.

Well, here you go again. On Wednesday, you vetoed this year's $275,000 allocation for the nonprofit Florida Center for Teachers.

"I fear for the future of the program," said Fran Cary, executive director of the St. Petersburg-based Florida Humanities Council, which manages the center.

I was hoping -- I did not bet, of course -- that since you had snubbed the center last year, you would approve 2002's allocation. No such luck. I also wrote these words last year, and they have just as much meaning now: "Myopic and arrogant, Bush has no good reason to take away the (center's) funding."

I need to say at this point, Governor, that the major reason the center means nothing to you is that you have not found a way to empirically establish its benefits. The center's programs do not -- like expensive courses on how to take standardized tests -- guarantee, or even suggest, that Florida children will score higher on the FCAT or other required examinations. So, exactly what is the Florida Center for Teachers' function? What makes it valuable to hundreds of Florida teachers and their thousands of students? (If I had the power, Governor, I would force you to attend one of the center's week-long institutes).

Ten years old, the center operates the only statewide staff development programs in the humanities for Florida's K-12 teachers. Its various seminars, planned and moderated by some of the state's best scholars, inspire teachers and enhance their knowledge of the state's history, literature, folklore, social issues and other topics.

Ann Simas Schoenacher, a Humanities Council program coordinator, assessed the center's efforts: "What teachers get in our seminars is a chance to be learners again. The enthusiasm for learning that is generated in a classroom by a teacher who has been renewed and has been allowed the freedom to think about 'big picture' issues cannot be measured yet by the FCAT."

Governor, your veto dismisses the intangibles of good teaching. Last year, you said you wanted teacher training to focus on school safety, data analysis, assessment, subject content, teaching methods and classroom assessment.

As far as I can tell, nothing has changed. You are right to insist on these areas, but you are wrong to dismiss teacher enrichment. Why do you ignore teacher enrichment? I am talking about special nurturing that celebrates excellence. Do you see any value in the professional support that sustains and reinvigorates love of the classroom?

"Year after year, veteran teachers tell us after they have returned to their classrooms that the center's renewal seminars are the best professional development programs they have attended," Schoenacher said. "More teachers than I can count have told me that they had made concrete plans to retire in six months or a year. But after they had the intellectual stimulation they experienced in our seminars, they decided to hold on and stay in the classroom."

The center is not a remedial program. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It recognizes and rewards excellent teachers -- those who inspire our children to learn more than test-taking.

Governor, when Florida, like most other states, faces a critical teacher shortage, you and your conservative, from-somewhere-else supporters give us education on the cheap. And you continue to ignore the concerns of our most important resource: our inspired, competent teachers.

As a black man educated in Jim Crow's evil system of racial segregation, I learned that when my teachers feel good about themselves and their profession, children are the real winners.

Today, Governor, too many of our good teachers feel humiliated because of you. As far as they are concerned, you are not on their side.

Governor, let me say this: Instead of discounting the value of our public school teachers through stinginess and crass politics, you need to help us celebrate these underpaid public servants.

In closing, I invite you to telephone Susan Lockwood, director of the Florida Center for Teachers, and arrange to participate in at least two of this summer's teacher seminars. Susan's number is (727) 553-3807. Hope to see you in St. Petersburg, Governor.

Oh, should I save my lead from 2001 for 2003?

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