Florida's Teachers Union Sues State Over Pension Reform, Plans Further Action

Florida's largest teachers union filed suit on Monday to stop the enactment of new pension reform laws, the first lawsuit of potentially many that seek to halt the Sunshine State's education agenda.

"The state has taken an ax to the budget instead of a scalpel," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association (FEA), in an interview with The Huffington Post. "They're turning their backs on teachers, law enforcement, firefighters, nurses. It's not the way to go."

Florida's Republican legislature passed a bill in April that requires state employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their pension plans. The legislation, championed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, passed along party lines with Democrats calling it an income tax.

This law, Ford said, is one of many passed this legislative session that his group opposes. "We have been analyzing all the issues that came about as a result as this session and we're continuing to look at many other issues for future suits potentially," he said. Ford specifically mentioned class size changes, using standardized tests for 50 percent of teacher evaluations and merit pay for teachers as issues the FEA might potentially protest in court "down the road, over the next few weeks."

Florida joined many states in passing sweeping education bills this legislative session. These laws, including Florida's, often tied teacher pay with performance on standardized tests.

"There are issues revolving around collective bargaining and the changes in the scope of bargaining in this education bill that we've had a problem with because we have a constitutional right to bargain for sound wages and conditions of employment," Ford said. "The evaluation is a condition of employment and now it's a condition of the salary."

The pension reform package could have been averted by taxes, according to the FEA president. "Even in this year, they gave more tax cuts," he said. "They continued to reduce the revenue to the state and claimed it's a budget shortfall."

The lawsuit filed Monday alleges that the pension law is unconstitutional, breaking with a legal contract established in 1974 that makes pensions noncontributory. Ron Meyer, the lawyer representing the FEA in the suit, said a hearing scheduled for next Thursday will weigh their requested injunction of the law. The FEA's injunction request seeks to hold the first 3 percent that would be removed from salaries this year in a fund that would be restored to teachers' salaries should the union ultimately win.

Scott is having none of it. "Asking state employees to pay a small percentage into their pensions is common sense," he said in a statement. "Floridians who don't work in government are required to pay into their own retirement. This is about fairness for those who don't have government jobs. Plus, we are ensuring a pension will be there for state employees when they retire. I'm confident this law is good for the people of Florida and will stand up in court."

Ford explained that the reach of Florida's new education laws would be felt in the classroom during the next academic year, which is why his group filed suit this week -- and plans potential further legal action. "You have teachers that have no anticipation of future employment, since all decisions will be based on this one test that has yet to be developed."

"It's not going to be a positive result for students," he added. "The curriculum is going to be adjusted as the tests are developed."

Some state Democrats are backing the suit. "Florida House Democratic Caucus members fought this unconstitutional attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of our public servants," House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders told the Sunshine State News. "I am pleased to see the FEA continue the fight against this mandatory personal income tax.”

The Florida Police Benevolent Association and the Florida Public Services Union have also joined the suit.

Meanwhile, Florida appointed its new education chief Tuesday. The state chose Gerard Robinson, currently Virginia's secretary of education, after a lengthy search process.

"During his time in the Commonwealth, Gerard has overseen the successful implementation of our major initiatives that will improve the quality of, and choices provided in, our public schools," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) said in a press release. "He led our efforts to expand charter schools, establish college laboratory schools, improve virtual learning programs, and implement a performance pay pilot program."

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