Education's critical mass

The state's two teachers' unions -- the Florida Education Association and the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association -- merged last week into a super union whose combined 250,000 members now include bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria employees.

Actually, it was a defensive move, and suggests that Florida's education war is heating up.

The action was meant to counter an offensive by the conservative forces in the Legislature that created a pseudo teachers' union, albeit one buried in the fine print of Gov. Jeb Bush's education package. That group -- called the Professional Educators Network, or PEN -- promises lower dues for teachers (about $95 versus $400 per year), teacher training and liability insurance -- but no collective bargaining for salaries and benefits. The idea is to sign up enough teachers in each county to decertify the real union.

PEN grew out of an alliance between Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future and the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute, a "think tank" that acts as an adjunct for powerful business interests. The two merged last February, before the Legislature approved Bush's proposal for the statewide voucher program that many public school teachers believe is designed in part to destroy their professional associations and union.

Pat Tornillo Jr., president of the new FEA-United, attacked the Bush-founded charter school in Liberty City as a "failure" last week, noting that it flunked the standardized tests that Bush's "A-plus for Education" law uses to measure a school's students eligibility for vouchers. Bush's spokesman attacked Tornillo. "He needs to quit using students, especially students at Liberty City, as political pawns," said Corey Tilley. "The school has been exactly the opposite of what he claims it has been. It's been a success."