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by Sandy Stenoff

On Monday, April 11, the Florida Education Association, representing 140,000 of Florida’s public school teachers, updated their website to include The Opt Out Florida Network as a source of information about opting out and the opt out movement for teachers.

Since the inception of the opt out movement, in Florida and across the country, teachers have sought guidance for where to find reliable and credible information about opting out of high stakes tests.

  • What if parents ask me about opting out?
  • What are teachers allowed to say?
  • What is the difference between informing and advocating?
  • What am I allowed to say and do on my own time?
  • Is my district’s information accurate?
  • If my student opts out as The Opt Out Florida Network recommends, does it actually affect my evaluation?

These questions are routinely discussed throughout The Opt Out Florida Network.  There is good reason why teachers are “warned” by districts to stay away from the opt out groups. We provide SOLID, verifiable information, that many districts would prefer for you NOT to know. The majority of our “information” comes from documented and verifiable public information, accessible to anyone – if you know where to look, and what you’re looking for.

Teachers’ unions have asserted that teachers have the right of protected speech, but have also cautioned that such speech is not without limits.  Many, but not all parents are aware that teachers’ speech, while protected, is limited, EVEN in cases where conscience dictates that teachers SHOULD speak out. Many teachers have said in group discussions that compliance with their contracts puts them at odds with their professional code of ethics. Where teachers may not be free to speak, the union IS. We, parents, have therefore, called for teachers unions to speak out on behalf of their members. Some teachers associations in other states, such as New YorkMassachussettsChicago, and Houston, have been vocal in their support of students opting out.

If teachers have not been as vocal as many parents would like, there may be good reason.  In states like Florida, “right to work” has nothing to do with a teacher’s right to work. What it really means is that teachers have the right to work without being obliged to join their union, which weakens the union, putting teachers at a disadvantage in bargaining, and makes the protection of a teacher’s right to due process more challenging.

We have been VERY clear that because of Florida’s right to work laws, and IN ADDITION to the twisted approach of the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) to openly, and actively, bully and threaten teachers regarding their licensure and livelihood, teachers must be extremely “selective” with their words. With regard to the opt out movement,  a teacher’s words, when investigated, may only inform – not encourage or advocate for students to opt out.  It is semantic, but crucial.  The threat is real for certified educators working both in and out of the classroom.  No one has the right to insist that a teacher speak out knowing the likelihood that the teacher will be charged, investigated, and sanctioned; unless that person is also going to help provide for that teacher’s family.

It is IMPERATIVE that parents AND teachers understand what this means in the big picture.

Singularly, we struggle against the testing plague that has had such a disastrous effect on our students, schools and members. Who knows this struggle better than the FEA and our members? Opt Out is the grassroots component that can not only help change these educational policies in Tallahassee, but also the elected officials that make these policies come election time. I think this is a valuable opportunity for us, the FEA . . .Mainly by disseminating information regarding options when it comes to testing.

The Opt Out movement is the force multiplier that will break the testing machine. Thus, I am giving them my support.

Dave Galloway, Pres – Jackson County EA

The FDOE is circling the wagons. There has been virtual “radio silence” from DOE staff, who, once available to answer questions or provide interpretation for statutes, are now unavailable…

DOE Response to ALL

This is the stock response from the DOE for ALL questions about testing, participation, scoring or opting out since March 28, when FSA Reading began.

We believe that the odds are excellent that the FDOE will TRY to change the rules for the NR2 score codes. There will be stronger language, possibly even through the legislature in this next session, to go beyond making “participation” mandatory, to try to force completion of the tests. Since children cannot be compelled to do anything, they will do their best to make it compulsory via consequences for non-completion.

Pam Stewart seemed to insist that she does not, in fact, use the FSA to punish students (see video here). However, she also states publicly and repeatedly that she WILL get the data from even the most severely disabled children – from Ethan Rediske on his death bed; from Michael with only a brain stem; from Maddie Drew, non-verbal with Cerebral Palsy; and she will deny a boy with Autism his service dog, required by his IEP for testing. We are, therefore, assured that Pam Stewart’s dogmatic obsession with securing test data will extend to targeting, policing and punishing teachers who are seen to support the opt out movement in any way.

Superintendents have already been put on notice to report teachers’ off-duty activity that goes beyond “informing.”

To imagine that the clouds will part and the education power brokers in Tallahassee will have an epiphany about authentic and meaningful assessments without parents and teachers locking arms in a massive revolt, is to have a wild fantasy beyond even Walt Disney’s imagination.

Parents are strongly encouraged to share this news with ALL teachers.

Teachers are strongly encouraged to inform parents of their rights. 

The Opt Out Florida Network appreciates that the Florida Education Association (FEA) has taken a strong public stand in support of Florida’s students, teachers, and public education, both, in this important position statement from the 2016 legislative session:

FEA 2016 position Student Testing Non Participation (1)

If you are unable to see this document well, please open it here.

and this week, from the Florida Education Association website:

“FEA has previously cautioned its members about using their classroom time, positions or school district resources or equipment to encourage students or parents to “opt out” of high-stakes testing. The cautionary note has been sounded to minimize the likelihood that education professionals will be subjected to discipline for taking such actions while performing their jobs. While educators retain their right to free speech, school districts also have the right to assure that employees do not utilize their classrooms and official positions for such advocacy or conduct activities in a manner which impairs efficiency and integrity in the discharge of official duties. The exercise of protected speech is not without bounds.

That being said, our concern for our members should not be construed as FEA opposition to the “opt out” movement or disagreement with the goals of “opt out” organizations, which seek to encourage wholesale refusals by parents to continue to participate in such high-stakes testing of students.

Anyone wanting further information about opting a student out of testing should, utilizing their personal computer and not a school district’s services or equipment, consult The Opt Out Florida Network for guidance. Such information may be obtained at:

2014-2016 Opt Out Guide:
http://bit.ly/OOGuide1516

Special Opt Out group for 3rd Grade:
http://bit.ly/OOFL3rd

Locating Local Opt Out Group:
http://bit.ly/LocalOptOutGroups

It is significant that the Florida Education Association has clarified its position on high stakes testing and has now provided the resources and guidance to help inform teachers how opting out affects them and their students. We fervently hope that parents and teachers alike will take this opportunity to learn more about the opt out movement and make their own fully informed decisions about how they choose to fight for public education.

We are already getting reports of severe push-back from the FDOE, via districts, from both teachers and parents. It has now been just three days since FEA’s announcement and we have this update from former Polk County teacher, Wendy Bradshaw:
Wendy Bradshaw - RE FEA & DOE 041316

The response this week has been a surge in the growth of the opt out movement across the state, and best of all, a continual increase in the numbers of opt outs. The simple act of becoming informed will continue to empower more parents and teachers and will grow the opt out movement, increasing our leverage in Tallahassee.

“OPT OUT” is not going down easy in Tallahassee and THAT tells us that we are making real progress.

Suggested Reading
National Education Association – Code of Ethics – NEA
Right-to-Work” States Still Have Lower Wages (April 22, 2015) – Economic Policy Institute
The Deafening Silence of Teachers (April 16, 2014) – Huffington Post
Biggest Myths About the Right to Work Laws (Dec 21,2012) – Aol.com
Myths and Facts about “Right to Work” Laws (Dec 12, 2012) – Media Matters
Right to Work Laws, Explained (March 16, 2012) – Mother Jones

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