Florida teachers protest school conditions at state Capitol

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — More than a thousand teachers, many waving signs critical of Florida's education system, blasted the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott during a rally Thursday at the Capitol.

Teachers chanted "enough is enough" and "vote them out" as rally organizers urged the teachers gathered just a few steps away from Scott's office to organize and vote in the upcoming 2016 elections.

They complained about the state's reliance on high-stakes testing. And they took aim at the level of money going to schools, private school vouchers and a contentious new bonus system that is partially tied to the scores that teachers earned on college admission tests.

"Our children are being cheated out of a high quality education by policy makers and their education reforms that are designed to meet the needs of adults rather than students," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association.

The rally was organized by the FEA, the union that represents teachers. The FEA has had a stormy relationship with GOP politicians for the past two decades, including former Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush was the architect of Florida's contentious A-F school grading system that relies on high-stakes tests.

The teacher protests follow a tumultuous time as Florida has transitioned to a new high-stakes test that is based primarily on Common Core standards. The rollout of the test last spring was marred by glitches and even a cyberattack, but state officials have moved ahead with plans to use the results to grade schools.

But despite all the recent problems, Florida legislators are not expected to make any major changes to the state's public schools during the legislative session that began Tuesday.

Several Republican leaders said that the teachers had the right to sound off, although Sen. Don Gaetz, a former school superintendent, said that union officials complained about education spending and testing when Democrats were in charge more than 20 years ago.

Some of the loudest boos from the crowd came when they discussed the "Best and Brightest" program. The Florida Legislature last year set aside $44 million for the program that awards extra money to teachers based on both their annual evaluations and their scores on the standardized tests used to get into college.

More than 5,300 teachers — out of more than 175,000 in the state — qualified for the bonus. But the union has filed complaints against the program, arguing it discriminates against older and minority teachers.

Despite the complaint state legislators are considering extending the program for a second year.

Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who championed the bonuses, brushed aside the criticism.

"It is unfortunate that the teachers' unions constantly oppose any payment structure effort that is not based on time served," Fresen said in a text message. "It's akin to the infantile argument of 'If I can't have any, neither can you.'"

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