DELAND — About 50 Volusia Democrats crowded into their headquarters Friday evening to meet one of the newest faces of the 2022 Florida election, Karla Hernández-Mats.
Charlie Crist’s running mate, Hernández-Mats is president of United Teachers of Dade since 2016 and a first-generation Miami native of Honduran descent. She gave dozens of hugs, posed for countless photos and told of her humble beginnings before launching into politics.
“I was raised in a very small house, much smaller than this one. Two bedrooms, one bathroom,” she said.
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She had to share a bed with her grandmother, “my best friend for a very long time,” who had not been given the opportunity to learn to read or write as a child. Despite this, her grandmother left an indelible impression.
“She taught me so much about women’s rights, about children’s rights,” Hernández-Mats said. “She started to work in someone’s kitchen at 9 years old.”
Hernández-Mats became a special-education teacher.
“I did it because I wanted to just be there for any little girl like my grandmother,” she said. “Letting them know that the sky is the limit, that they can do and be anything they want to be if you can just get the right support and have access to the resources.”
She is married and has two children of her own, ages 13 and 8, in public schools.
Opposing school choice?
From endorsing school board candidates to advocating parents’ rights and expanding access to private schools through a scholarship program, Gov. Ron DeSantis has made education a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.
He has also claimed victory in his management of the pandemic, reopening schools to in-person learning in August 2020, earlier than many other states and at a time when COVID deaths were spiking in Florida.
DeSantis’ allies have fired their ammunition at Hernández-Mats on a number of issues stemming from her advocacy as a teachers union president.
In an op-ed published in the Orlando Sentinel earlier this month, Peyton Lofton, a policy analyst at The New Center think tank, criticized Hernández-Mats, calling her out of touch with parents.
“She has a history of opposing school choice, fighting against expansion of the tax credit scholarship program that enables Florida’s low-income students to afford competitive private schools,” he wrote.
“She has also called to fully defund charter schools, claiming they ‘give to the haves and take from the have-nots,'” Lofton wrote. “Perhaps Hernández-Mats is unaware that in 2021, 70% of Florida’s charter students were minorities, and 51% were low-income.”
In a brief, one-on-one interview with The News-Journal Friday night, Hernández-Mats addressed these criticisms.
She said she doesn’t envision the elimination of charter schools.
“All these different systems of schools or groups of schools are going to exist. And they’ve existed for a very long time. My position has always been that we can’t defund one to fund the other,” Hernández-Mats said.
“Public schools are accountable for 90% of all children’s education, not only in the state of Florida but across the country. And so if that is the basis of where our children are getting their education, we have to make sure that we adequately fund our public schools,” she said. “It’s not about eradicating anything.”
She reiterated a call for “accountability” for the charter schools and private schools that accept state funding. Those schools haven’t been subject to the same grading system as public schools and are allowed to discriminate against students who identify as LBGTQ, students with same-sex parents and gay teachers, she said.
Fighting ‘Don’t Say Gay’ and ‘Stop WOKE’
John Navarra, a Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives from Daytona Beach, and a high school social studies teacher, said he finds it “inspiring” that Crist’s choice was an educator.
“She knows firsthand what the teaching profession is like,” Navarra said Friday. “And we’ve had many laws that we did not seek, but were brought upon teachers and we have to deal with. The laws are kind of vague and so it has been very challenging to obey laws where it’s not extremely clear.”
The Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill and pushed heavily by DeSantis, prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 “or in a manner that is not age- appropriate.”
DeSantis also signed a bill dubbed the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees,” or “Stop WOKE” Act, banning discussion of critical-race theory in public schools and hiring of CRT consultants at schools (including colleges) and businesses.
Both bills give parents a right to sue teachers and schools who they say violate those laws.
Navarra said these laws are vague and pose serious potential consequences for teachers.
“If you tell me something like lock your door, that’s easy to comply with,” he said, “but if you tell me don’t make the students uncomfortable, that’s harder. The laws are hard to follow.”
Hernández-Mats attacked the DeSantis-led “parents’ rights” movement.
“Teachers are being vilified,” she said. “Since when has it been OK to ban books, to censor teachers? It’s not OK.
“They’re distracting us and creating these fantastical situations about things that do not happen, things that are not real,” she said. “They’re pitting one against the other. They’re dividing that community. But we’re not going to let that happen.”
COVID response and experience
As lieutenant governor, Hernández-Mats would be in a position to step in for Crist should he be elected and need to be replaced.
Hernández-Mats — who has never held a position in state government — said she’s equipped to handle the job of governor.
“I did teach civics, so I understand the way that government works and civics education,” she said.
Her work as president of the largest teachers union in the Southeast regularly sends her to Tallahassee to advocate for teachers and students, she noted.
“I think that maybe people don’t see that side of me in the work that I do, but I’ve been doing advocacy work in Tallahassee for many years now,” Hernández-Mats said.
“I also tell people that our schools and our classrooms are a microcosm of our communities, so whatever the community is struggling with, issues that we see that are being faced on a day-to-day basis, we’re hearing about them, ” she said, referring to issues including poverty, affordable housing and health insurance.
“I think I have a very different and unique perspective and what I really want people to understand is nobody says, ‘There’s too many teachers in Tallahassee, let’s get ’em out.’ “
DeSantis has been credited for his decision in August 2020 to require schools to reopen for in-person instruction, while Hernández-Mats “campaigned to keep Florida schools closed during COVID, which harmed students and did essentially nothing to stop the spread,” Lofton wrote .
School closures nationwide contributed to a drop in test scores, the first for reading since 1990, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, with students of color demonstrating the greatest declines.
Hernández-Mats defended her stance on COVID, noting that DeSantis shut down Florida in an executive order in March 2020.
“So he’s the one who put us on lockdown,” she said. “He likes to rewrite history sometimes and he doesn’t like to acknowledge that.”
She said she fought to keep students and teachers safe once it was clear in-person learning would take place.
“That meant social distancing protocols. That meant mask-wearing. That meant more hygiene in our schools. And those were all things we all knew we needed to do because we were following the CDC guidelines and following scientists and protocols,” Hernández-Mats said. “We weren’t gambling with children’s lives. We wanted to make sure we got it right. So I take credit for us fighting so hard to make sure we did it and we did it in a safe way.”
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