“Union:” the only positive force in Florida education’s human capital management model

Richard Corcoran and Kelli Stargel and all the usual suspects are back this session with another ridiculous assault on the people of public education. This year’s ever-engorging collection of malevolent nonsense most famously includes bully vouchers and union destruction.

Although unpleasant, this makes for good timing. Yesterday, I introduced a periodic series I’m calling “Education and the English Language.” The idea, with a nod to George Orwell, is to tackle a loaded word or phrase in education commentary.

I’m going to address “bully” as a word soon; but today I’m focused on “union.” I want to spend some time telling business people, Republicans, and the public alike why unions are the only positive, large-scale force in the Florida education model today.

All district employees are state employees

This starts with a crucial fact about the educational corporate structure in Florida.

If you understand nothing else about the public education model in Florida, understand this: Florida’s 325,000 public school employees are state employees. For all practical purposes, they work for the Florida Department of Education, which is a giant business/corporation/organization. With 325,000 employees in 67 districts, this Florida monstrosity employs more people in one state than Google, Apple, and Microsoft do combined, globally. Look it up.

Your local school districts are little more than distribution centers for the product Tallahassee manufactures. Schools are the retail stores, especially the traditional neighborhood schools that Tallahassee despises. If you don’t come to understand that, dear reader, nothing will change sustainably for the better. Nothing.

Your district may sign a teacher’s check. But DoE Inc.’s Board of Directors — your Florida Legislature — controls budgets, pensions, and operations. If you’re a teacher or a para or a bus driver, that makes you a state employee. Indeed, within most big national corporations, you will find greater salary variation based on geography of offices than you find among local districts in Florida. We’re not independent operators in any way.

Local districts have about as much control over “education” in Florida as an Amazon warehouse has over pricing and sales strategy. Your schools have about as much control over what to sell and produce as your nearest Publix or Chili’s store. The daily environment at any given school — like any given Publix or Chili’s — can vary based on the profile of kids/customers and quality of leadership and general morale of staff. But it’s still a unit of a larger corporate enterprise.

Now let’s look at the product produced by Florida’s failing statewide corporation. On its own useless test metrics, Florida is America’s worst manufacturer of education, an “almost insane basket case.” Tests are the taxes of educational experience; and we’re getting garbage out of them. Time to cut them.

I recently wrote in excruciating detail about this map and the state operational, policy, and academic dysfunction that produced it. Every single legislator of the last 20 years has much to answer for.

Key summary:

Well, look at this data from a Stanford study of growth in test-based effectiveness measures between 3rd grade and 8th grade. Key fact: Purple is bad. And there are plums less purple than Florida. We literally look like a sore thumb…

…This study drills down to the county level. Not one Florida district gets out of purple. [ Basically every one in Tennessee does. That’s a state model problem. That’s a politician problem. That’s a leader problem. That’s a Kelli Stargel and Pam Stewart and Marva Johnson and Gary Chartrand problem. It’s a Richard Corcoran and Adam Putnam problem (although, I think Adam at least knows there’s a problem).

I also provided a series of technical and policy fixes. Feel free to peruse at your leisure.

A catastrophic HR failure: the Florida DoE is America’s worst large-scale employer. The Legislature is America’s worst board of directors

I touched on HR (or Human Capital Management, in the more trendy term) culture within the local Polk district as part of the changes I’d like to see. But toxic HCM pervades the state. Indeed, the HCM problems we have in Polk County emerge directly from the HCM incentives created and enforced at the home office in Tallahassee.

The evidence of this is Florida’s crippling statewide teacher shortage. It’s our greatest single problem as a state, if we care about a future for any of our kids. And it should surprise no one.

In my adult life, I have worked for three extremely well-known business/corporate brands — one in restaurants, one in journalism, and one in professional services. If any of them had a human capital management culture anywhere near the Florida DoE’s, I would not have lasted six months as an employee.

None of these brands have unions where I work or worked. But all of them, in their way, understand that they rely on human capital to engage customers and clients. They would never, in a million years, systemically treat their employees the way Pam Stewart and Kelli Stargel do. The employees are a big part of the products these companies sell. Abusing them harms the product. And where individuals within those brands harm the human capital culture, consequences generally have followed, in my experience.

Human engagement is the essence of education and business. If clear research told you, dear business leader, that you can’t hire employees because your organization pays lousily and treats people like crap, would you say: “More of that, please!”

I don’t think so.

Instead, it’s time to start running government like a business. If our business and civic leaders want a world-class education system, I suggest they demand a human capital development culture in state government that can produce it. If they don’t, there’s not much for us to talk about. Because no one will want to sell this product in the future.

The only reason people sell it now is that they bring a sense of missionary, moral zeal that powers through even toxic mismanagement and abuse. Our people on the ground, every day, create meaningful, transforming experiences with almost no help from the toxic educational leadership class. Continuing to do it makes them heroes. They are why I ran for office. But there are limits to all heroism.  We are finding them in this state and this county.

Unions are the only positive force in Florida’s educational Human Capital Management culture

Floridians have allowed this to happen because our leaders have conned us with a single word chock full of fake images: “Union”

Essentially, for years, education leaders in both parties, when they’ve said “union,” have wanted you to imagine a lazy, middle-aged woman doing her nails while her class watches a video. And they’ve been very effective in selling that false mental image, because it’s been a bipartisan sales job. Democrats, for whatever reason, have been completely unable and unwilling to battle for teachers and public school workers the way Republicans battle for police. That probably reflects the preferences of the big donors in both parties.

“Leaders” in both parties have used isolated horror stories of due process for bad teachers to discredit the idea of any meaningful due process and management respect for anybody in the education profession.  It is a particularly bad in Florida, where Republicans have ruled badly with impunity and Jeb Bush pioneered the use of these abusive images.

Like all long-standing abuses of political language, the abuse of “union” has massive consequences. It’s become a euphemism for any teacher with a critical opinion about leadership in his or her profession. It’s allowed people with such little talent and ability as Kelli Stargel and our legislators to impose this kind of measurement, evaluation, and judgment on people who are much better than they are:

Twenty years of abusing the word “union” and anyone attached to it has produced nothing but a massive teacher shortage and the complete failure shown again by this map.

I would join the Polk Education Association

I ran on a platform that sought to diminish the importance and centrality of the tired, decades-old union fight. I have a standard line about this: Whether you like unions or hate them, on the list of 1,000 important determining factors in education, they are about #978. Let’s have new fights that are more important.

However, in my year or so as part of management, experience has changed my tune a bit.

If your Florida DoE and your Legislature had an HR and development culture like Publix, for instance, I think my line would hold completely true. Indeed, if it had an HR culture like any other major organization I have ever seen, I think my line would hold true. But believe me, it does not.

I have never encountered an employer that so despises its own employees as the Florida Department of Education and Legislature. I have never seen a workplace so fundamentally hostile, where hostility is an intentional part of the corporate model. I know it sounds crazy; but it’s true. And that has real consequences, obviously. The home office in Tallahassee will never discipline a local district for behaving harshly towards its employees. It wants that treatment. So it creates powerful incentives for it, and we feel it at home. It’s called test-and-punish for a reason.

In the last 20 years of Florida education, generally, leaders have risen in organizational power by making the work environment generally worse. That makes unions far more important than I originally thought. Indeed, if I were a teacher in any district, I would absolutely join my union. I would especially do it in Polk County.

I wish I could replace my HR function with my union

More than that, if I could somehow do it, as a representative of management, I would replace my HR function with my union. Immediately.

This is not ideology talking. It’s observation and experience from 14 months as a board member who listens to people.

I trust the intentions and motivations of my union more than I trust my HR leadership. The leadership of my union is more productively self-critical. It comes with more constructive suggestions. It’s easier to work with. It’s more responsive. I believe it cares much, much more about the day-to-day lives of our employees. And I think it’s more focused on the long-term preservation of public education as a whole.

Tallahassee and Kelli Stargel care about none of those things. So why would our HR leadership, which must answer to the home office in Tallahassee, care about them? HR in the branch office is going to do what corporate demands. Ultimately, the incentives that trickle down define how they’re evaluated and paid.

If you like what I’m trying to accomplish at all, you need to understand that the Polk Education Association (our local teacher’s union) is by far my biggest institutional ally. By far.

Here are just a few ways that our unions, led by AFSCME president Larry Millhorn and Polk Education Association president Marianne Capoziello, has helped your school district in my time on the board.

Negotiated settlement, rather than imposed nonsense

Our unions were always more constructive partners in my efforts to end our stupid 15-month labor fight than my own negotiating side was. The teachers union, by skillfully winning the impasse hearing before a special magistrate, provided the leverage to force a negotiated settlement with the people in management who really wanted a deal.  And today, negotiations for the next deal are proceeding on better terms. Labor peace is possible if you want it and work for it honestly. The unions are honorable partners.

More money into the classroom

The key sticking point of that settlement was whether we keep a 4 or 5 percent reserve. We dropped it to 4 percent after more than a year of resistance. That is $8 million put into the classroom, rather than a piggybank of dead money for the state government to raid. The PEA helped drive that money into the classroom.

Early warning system for organizational trouble and trends

Because I have not yet been able to instill a sense of productive self-criticism within my own organization, the union has become important in providing heads up on a whole range of emerging systemic issues. I will go to my grave trying to get our organization as a whole to accept the idea of anticipating and talking openly about problems (see ESE) so we can openly address them. But for now, the union is a valuable part of my self-criticism network. I can call Marianne Capoziello or Larry Millhorn with a question and get an honest, good faith response quickly. That’s incredibly valuable to me.

A corrective check on bad management ideas

Multiple times, the union has said the equivalent of “that’s a terrible idea” to management in a quiet way and saved that terrible idea from coming to fruition and damaging morale and causing a legal problem. And they tried to do it with the pep rally.

Deep collaboration on alternative evaluation techniques

They’ve worked closely with district staff — and contributed thousands of membership dollars — to create evaluation criteria to use as an alternative to Kelli Stargel’s VAM equation.

The only protection any employee has from management

Because our local HR culture answers to Tallahassee’s incentives not Polk’s, the union grievance process and institutional resources are the only meaningful workplace protection that any employee in our district has. I suspect it is like this everywhere; but I know it’s like this in Polk. Anyone who has read me in the past seven months has seen examples.

Let’s create a new meaning for “union” and an HCM culture rooted in common purpose

I know that for many of my business and economic development friends, this is jarring to read. The imagery of “union” is powerfully negative to you in any setting. In education, it has exponential power. You’ve never really had anybody confront it for you.

All I can tell you is that you’ve been lied to for a long, long time. All I can do is ask you if you think I’m lying. Have you known me to lie to you? Do you believe me? Or do you believe Kelli Stargel and Richard Corcoran?

Ultimately, business is supposed to care about bottom line outcomes, right? What are the bottom line outcomes of 20 years of union-hating, teacher-bashing, test-and-punish? An entirely predictable teacher shortage and this:

Polk’s HCM culture is our number 1 local problem, by far. It is my number one criticism of my superintendent, who ultimately has responsibility for it. I have been a pain in the ass about it for months. I am going to continue to be a pain in the ass about it. In just the last 24 hours, I’ve become aware of several petty, stupid things that frustrate the sense of progress that I saw emerging from the impasse resolution. That’s why I wanted to say all of this in public. Now.

But, our local issues are symptomatic of the Florida model’s overall HCM approach. To change it, we have to consciously reject the ethic at the heart of state government’s corporate model. Here is that ethic on display right now: it’s government by blackmail and extortion.

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday adopted a spending plan that would allocate about $8.3 billion in state funding for public schools only if an already-controversial omnibus education bill becomes law.

The legislation is House Bill 7055, which was unveiled last week and ballooned to nearly 200 pages when it was also passed by the House budget committee on Wednesday. The legislation includes Corcoran’s main stated priority for the 2018 session, the so-called “hope scholarship, which is a new voucher that would allow bullied students to attend private schools using public dollars. It also includes an especially controversial provision threatening the existence of teachers’ unions.

Translation: Back this terrible policy that no one has thought through or cares about implementing — or all your kids and teachers get it. Come on.

I’m trying to fight every battle on every front to save public education in this state. I have no better ally than my union. If that battle matters to you; it’s time to pick a side — or Tallahassee will pick it for you.

2 comments

  1. Terry Krassner

    As a teacher, I served on the Executive Board of PCTA ( Union in Pinellas County )always a member.As a Principal, I always encouraged our teachers to join PCTA, making them aware, they are the recognized voice for all Educators.Presently,a School Board member and continue to treasure the relationship and collaboration with PCTA.We are as good as the people we are surrounded by.I wish there was more Local Control!! Tallahassee is frustrating beyond belief!!

  2. Cassandra Gibson

    Thank you for this doesn’t seem to be enough….but thank you. THANK YOU.