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Some Florida educators say they're confused by new state laws and standards

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the school year gets underway in Florida, some teachers say they are confused about how to adopt and adapt to new state laws and standards. Some are still waiting for guidance from their principals or county education leaders on issues like the so-called Don't Say Gay law, which bans sexual and gender instruction in all grades. The measure also bars teacher - teachers from using student's chosen pronouns. For more on this, we've called Andrew Spar. He is the head of Florida's teachers union, the Florida Education Association. Good morning, Mr. Spar.

ANDREW SPAR: Good morning, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for joining us. So what are you hearing from teachers about how they are adapting to these new laws and standards?

SPAR: Well, as I've traveled the state at the beginning of this school year, I've been talking to teachers. And what I continue to hear is that there's a lot of angst and concern and frustration. And, you know, some teachers are saying I'm already so tired with trying to figure out what I need to do that I feel like it's the end of the year, and it's just starting. So that's very concerning for a profession that has felt under attack for a while and does not feel valued. And it is what has, I believe, led to one of the worst teacher and staff shortages we've ever seen.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that in a minute. But before we do, is the union doing anything to address some of these difficulties and concerns?

SPAR: Well, of course, we're continuing to raise awareness, and we've issued guidance to our members on how to deal with some of these laws. But even the guidance we've issued - you know, there's a lot of holes in it because the state just simply won't clarify what's allowed and what isn't allowed. I was talking to a teacher yesterday whose school district gave them the rules - this was a social studies teacher - that was color-coded with green, yellow and red, green saying these are the part of the rules that you're good with, these are the parts you should be careful with, and the red is areas you should stay away from. And, you know, the teacher said, I don't even know what to do with that. How does that relate to my standards, and how does that relate to what I'm teaching in the classroom? So there is still just an awful lot of confusion. We continue to work to try to get clarity. We've called on the Department of Education to provide clarity, but yet again, the state is refusing to give clarity.

MARTIN: So let's go to this question of teacher vacancies. You're - the union says that there are about 900 more advertised teacher vacancies now than there were at the start of the last school year. I don't know if you have any way to ascertain this, but do you know or do you believe that these vacancies have something to do with these new laws?

SPAR: I absolutely do believe, as I've talked to teachers who have left the district. I actually talked to a teacher yesterday who is leaving her school district and going to teach in Georgia, and yesterday was her last day, and it's just the start of the school year. And what we're hearing from teachers is that they are frustrated with low and unfair pay in Florida. They're frustrated with these policies and laws that are coming out that are preventing them from teaching. Every teacher I talked to says just let me teach. I just want to teach. I want to care about kids and help them grow and learn, and I don't think I can do that right now.

MARTIN: But, you know, on the matter of these numbers, the state's education department disputes this and says that there are actually fewer teacher vacancies than this time last year - like, 10% less - and that Florida's vacancy rate is actually less than the national average. Why are there - why is there a dispute over the numbers? Why do they have different numbers than you do?

SPAR: So what we do is we go to every school district. We do this every year and have for the last seven years. We go to every school district's website and look at the number of posted vacancies. And I will tell you, when we look at those posted vacancies, you know, it could be there are more vacancies because the way districts post them. They may post some today, tomorrow or the next day. And so if you look at them at one day, the numbers vary. We don't know how the state got their numbers. They haven't said. They just said these are the numbers, and they're asking people to trust them without being able to verify. So I would just say that, you know, again, we could argue over numbers, but the reality of it is we have a really bad teacher shortage.

MARTIN: So really briefly, what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having at the end of this school year if you and I talk again?

SPAR: Well, look, I'll tell you from a parent perspective, my daughter is in ninth grade. My youngest - she just started high school. She does not have an English teacher to start the year. And this is the third year in a row now that my daughter has had part of the year without a teacher. In seventh, eighth and ninth grade, there have been times where she has not had a teacher because a teacher left.

MARTIN: Wow. That's Andrew Spar. He's president of the Florida Education Association. Mr. Spar, thank you for joining us.

SPAR: Absolutely. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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