By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Education Association is highly litigious, flush with resources from membership dues and fees, and it’s politically active.
It often gets its way, but not without collateral damage.
In its fight with the Legislature for more school funding, the union is determined to destroy a privately funded scholarship program giving 68,000 of Florida’s poorest students the opportunity to attend private schools.
Unlike low-income families, dozens of union leaders can afford to do without it.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 45 FEA officers and employees made six-figure salaries in 2013 — four were among the top 12 highest paid union members in the state.
Andy Ford, president of the FEA, was the highest paid member of any union. Ford took home more than $395,000 in total compensation last year, according to government records. From 2010 to 2013, Ford pocketed more than $1.1 million.
Union vice president Joanne McCall was the third highest paid union member in Florida in 2013, at $283,757. McCall made $1.3 million over the past 10 years, according to records — $1.8 million when including benefits.
Gov. Rick Scott would make $158,000 annually, though he declines to take a salary.
In contrast, families opting for the scholarships rely on free or reduced-priced school lunches. Eligible students also include those in foster care.
“I don’t understand why there is such controversy surrounding the program,” said Faith Manuel, a Florida mother whose three children are enrolled.
“I’ve only experienced benefits,” she told Watchdog.org.
An FEA-backed lawsuit asserts the scholarship program, which gives tax credits in exchange for donations, diverts funding from public schools.
“The tax credit voucher scheme is one of several recent attempts by the Legislature to establish a state program to pay for the education of Florida children in largely unregulated private schools, diverting for that purpose funds that otherwise would support those children’s education in the system of free public schools required by the Florida Constitution,” states the union on its website.
Proponents say it saves taxpayer money.
In 2006, Florida courts struck down a similar scholarship program for the economically disadvantaged because it used public funds. The current program does not.
The FEA is hardly alone in its opposition. The union leadership’s effort is supported by the Florida School Board Association, the Florida PTA, the state chapter of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist has also signaled his support for the teachers’ union over the needs of low-income, mostly minority families. According to campaign records, the FEA’s political advocacy fund gave $250,000 to Crist’s campaign last month.
On Wednesday, a diverse coalition of pro-scholarship groups and individuals launched its own campaign.
Called the Save Our Scholarships Coalition, school-choice advocates, business and faith-based leaders and representatives of supportive parents from across the state held a conference call with reporters urging the FEA and other interested parties to drop their lawsuit.
“I cannot for the life of me fathom why these educators are willing to jeopardize the well-being of the state’s poorest students,” said Rev. H.K. Matthews, a civil rights leader.
“The lawsuit filed by the Florida teachers union and the school boards association would effectively kick children out of the very classrooms in which, for the first time, they are succeeding,” said Matthews, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
The Save Our Scholarships Coalition includes:
- 60 African-American ministers
- 84 Hispanic public school teachers
- An orthodox Jewish union
- The Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
- The Black Alliance for Educational Options
“The Save Our Scholarships Coalition is urging all Floridians to join the movement to save scholarships and prevent the students from being thrown out of their schools,” the group said in an email.
The FEA took in $22.6 million in dues and fees last year from its 127,560 members.
The amount of six-figure salaries also stands in stark contrast with the teachers it represents.
According to the National Education Association, the average Florida teacher made $46,921. Beginning teachers made just $35,236 on average.
Florida’s current state budget includes a record $20.3 billion for K-12 education spending.