Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Florida teachers union sues state over new pension law

The state's largest teachers union joined with other labor organizations Monday in suing Gov. Rick Scott to overturn a new 3 percent payroll contribution demanded of 655,000 government workers who belong to the Florida Retirement System.

The Florida Education Association said the suit was the first of several it intends to file to block policies enacted by the Republican-ruled legislature. Union attorney Ron Meyer said a challenge is coming soon to the merit-pay plan that became the first bill Scott signed into law.

Scott and other state officials are named as defendants in the class-action suit filed Monday on behalf of 11 public employees who are members of the retirement system.

A central provision of the lawsuit claims the legislation (SB 2100) violates a contractual agreement with public employees that dates to 1974, when the pension plan was converted to a "noncontributory system" for workers. "We believe a promise is a promise and the state of Florida should live by the promises it makes," Meyer said after filing the suit in Leon County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit also asks the court to issue an injunction ordering the 3 percent contributions, which kick in July 1, to be segregated in a state account pending the legal outcome. Meyer said it's likely the case will eventually go to the Florida Supreme Court.

Scott said he was confident the state would prevail. "Asking state employees to pay a small percentage into their pensions is common sense," Scott said. "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."

Scott in his budget proposal this year recommended even more sweeping changes to the state's pension fund, including 5 percent payroll contributions from employees. Lawmakers, however, settled on demanding 3 percent from the paychecks of retirement system workers, pulling roughly $1 billion into the state treasury and helping close an almost $3.8 billion budget shortfall.

Teachers and other school personnel represent the majority of the 655,000 members of the retirement system affected by the new law. But the 11 workers suing the state include members of the AFL-CIO; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Fraternal Order of Police; and Service Employees International Union.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Florida Police Benevolent Association filed a motion with the court, seeking to join the legal challenge.

Officials with Palm Beach County's teachers union praised the Florida Education Association's lawsuit. Executive Director Tony Hernandez said the 3 percent contribution is "a form of taxing teachers to balance the state budget."

"It's unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game," said Kathi Gundlach, acting president of the Classroom Teachers Association, the county's teachers union. "This affects our teachers' livelihoods," she said.

The Palm Beach County School District is expected to save $55 million in fiscal 2012 with the savings it gains by having to contribute less to employees' retirement accounts, Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke said. "The state reduced our funding more than $90 million," Burke said. "We're banking on that money to help the budget."

The FEA and many of the unions represented in Monday's lawsuit had been heavy backers of Democrat Alex Sink, who narrowly lost to Scott in November. House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West praised the lawsuit, echoing claims about the contribution amounting to an income tax.

"Florida House Democratic Caucus members fought this unconstitutional attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of our public servants," Saunders said. "I am pleased to see the FEA continue the fight against this mandatory personal income tax."


An extended school year in Britain?

Schools will open throughout the year and teach on Saturdays under a Coalition plan to raise education standards, it emerged today.

The Government’s flagship “free schools” will be given new powers to shake-up the academic year by axing traditional holidays and staging booster lessons outside the normal timetable, it emerged.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said the plans would help working parents and provide extra tuition for children falling behind.

In a speech on Monday, he praised one school in Norwich that is proposing to open for six days a week for 51 weeks of the year. Others are planning to keep pupils in school until at least 5pm or stage regular weekend lessons.

The disclosure came as it emerged some 281 bids have been made to run free schools since March. Of those, it is believed 100 will open next year.

Free schools are state-funded institutions run by parents, teachers’ groups, private companies, religious organisations and charities.

On Monday, it emerged that Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Coalition’s favourite head teacher and principal of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, is to open his own free school in the south of the deprived London borough.

With complete freedom from local authority control, the schools can rewrite the curriculum, deviate from national rules on staff pay and set their own admissions.

Mr Gove said others would also use their freedom to alter the length of the school day and academic years. "Free schools offer a genuine alternative and they have the freedom to be different; like the Norwich Free School, which will integrate high-quality education and child care year-round,” he said.

"The school will be sited right in the heart of Norwich so that working parents can make full use of the affordable extended school provision, which will be available on the school premises for six days each week, 51 weeks of the year."

The school – being opened by a group of teachers and working parents in September – says it will run an "extended service" paid for by families, before and after school. The only time it will be closed is for a week at Christmas and bank holidays. The school is also planning to split the year into six terms, with a two-week break between each and four weeks off in August.

The West London Free School, spearheaded by writer Toby Young, which is also due to open in September, says it expects pupils to stay in school, or at music and drama clubs until 5pm between Monday and Friday.

Mossbourne Academy, which was opened under the last Labour Government, already operates a longer school day and opens at weekends.

Speaking at the Policy Exchange conference, Sir Michael said the school had helped to raise standards by having the children stay in school until "six, seven or eight in the evening". Often they have their evening meal at school, he added.

A Government spokesman said: "Free schools and academies can open year-round if they want to. They can change the school day, the length of the school term however much they want."


Britain's church schools under threat, warns Bishop of Oxford

The Church is in danger of being driven out of public education by Government reforms and a generation of teachers ignorant of even the basic tenets of Christianity, a senior cleric has warned.

A rush to introduce new academies and changes to the curriculum could threaten the very “survival” of the church schools system unless urgent action is taken, according to the head of the Church of England’s Board of Education.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, also warned that a tide of secularisation had undermined the standard of teaching of the Christian faith. Even in schools run by the church itself many teachers now lack a “default understanding” of Christianity, he said.

The warnings are contained in a hard hitting report about the state of faith schools and religious education to be debated by the Church of England’s General Synod next month.

Around a million children are currently being educated in Church of England schools with a similar number benefiting from a Roman Catholic or other Christian education. But the bishop said that a “call to action" was needed to maintain the "proud history" of the Church of England's contribution to education.

He described the Coalition’s education programme as the “the most fundamental shift in the publicly funded school system” since the 1944 Education Act which introduced the system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical institutions.

But he said that "very short notice" had been given for many recent changes as the Government agenda is "driven through” Parliament adding: “This is not the best way to build for the future.”

Amid doubts about the level of influence the Church will continue to have in schools which convert to become independently run academies, some feared that the religious foundation could quickly “drift until it had no meaning”, he added. “The changed rationale and growth of academies requires action now to ensure the survival of our provision,” he said.

The Bishop, who provoked controversy earlier this year with plans to cut the number of places in church schools, also stepped up his criticism of the decision to exclude RE from the new “English Baccalaureate” standard. The decision had had an “immediate and depressing effect” on the number of pupils choosing the subject, he said.

But he added that a wider tide of secularisation also threatens to the teaching of Christianity. “Standards in RE are not healthy,” he said. “In particular the teaching and learning about Christianity is generally not well done.

“The Church of England should not be overly complacent about the quality of teaching about Christianity in its own schools. “Syllabuses generally do not give enough help to teachers now entering the profession who lack even a default understanding of Christianity. “While Diocesan Boards of Education still provide in-service support for teachers the mountain is very large and progress is slow.”


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