To a native Floridian, commentary on “Florida Man” is the equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. All spoofs are supposed to have a shelf life, and those that lack the self-awareness to retire eventually turn from funny to exasperating at warp speed. Nevertheless, eight years after its stage entrance, the joke still performs the hits to a packed crowd. This may be a result of the truth being infinitely funnier than the pretend. Anyone who knows Florida knows the punchline is not just about the crazed men profiled but also representative of the state as a whole- confusing and erratic and a force of nature not to get in the way of. Floridians are headstrong despite their inconsistencies, often embracing ideas of family, fairness, and charity while also holding a deep mistrust of the government that stems from the core of its southern inclinations and character. They are willing to give their money or time directly to those in need but not to a government seen as mischievous, excessive, and incompetent.
From those roots, a tree was formed. Floridians have fought for and celebrated their long tradition of paying no state income tax and little to no property taxes. The problem then becomes trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If public schools are funded by state income taxes and subsidized by property tax revenue, how do we fund schools without them? The answer is we don’t. Decades of empty coffers have resulted in putrid funding for kids and decrepit teacher salaries and pensions. If we are honest, however, you already knew this. At the very least, it was to be expected. Just Florida being Florida, man. If the sunshine state survived nearly single-handedly walking the country off a cliff during its debacle of the 2000 election, the public school system could find a way to make a way. Every day a “Florida man” forces society to contemplate the possibilities of human irrationality, and yet the sun still rises the very next over the Atlantic ocean. The school system will figure it out because that is what Floridians always do.
The reality is, however, that public school kids in Florida are struggling to figure anything out. They posted the sixth-worst SAT scores in the country last year, a number already inflated by private school students who scored, on average, one hundred and fifty points higher than their public school counterparts. Sixty-six percent of Florida public school students are not ready to take college-level math, and the state eliminated funding for remedial courses in 2014. The stubbornness of Florida’s identity as both a resilient and anti-government metropolis creates a dangerous infrastructure of buck-passing. Expecting Florida colleges to close the gap for Florida public school students is a fools’ errand, and it should serve as no surprise that the state college system is well below the national average in graduation rates for bachelor’s degrees within six years.
“Find a way” and “figure it out” are mantras Floridian’s continue to chant to shoo away the forces of government from picking their pockets. The unfortunate reality is that their pockets are already empty as a result of their obstinance. When a state does not produce college graduates, the state does not have college graduates. Florida is thirty-fourth out of fifty states in workforce population with a high school diploma or higher. Educational attainment is the single most crucial correlating factor for wages in our country. Products of the Florida public school system overwhelmingly begin and end their working careers without the educational credentials necessary to maximize their earning power and find themselves stuck in a job that pays an unlivable wage as a consequence. A married couple with no children each requires a salary of $49,864 and only forty-three percent of available jobs pay above it. A married couple who decide to have a child find themselves competing in a market where less than twenty-eight percent of the available jobs pay above a living wage. Florida’s astronomical surge in rent coupled with soaring profits from the wealthiest business owners should result in wage increases for workers. However, without a degree to use as leverage, Floridian’s find themselves stuck in neutral with no bargaining chips. The education crisis eventually becomes a problem of a cyclical nature. Employers with high-paying jobs looking for highly educated workers do not come to Florida. Individuals who were able to overcome the gauntlet of a Florida public school education must leave the state in order to find employment opportunities sufficient to pay them a decent wage that accounts for compounding student loan bills. Those with advanced college degrees who stay in the state are held hostage by employers in a way eerily similar to their non-degree holding counterparts. The median pay in Miami of $53,275 for advanced degree holders is the second-lowest of any major city in the country.
When stubbornness and resilience are part of a state’s DNA, it can manifest itself in damaging results. Floridians do not want public schools to fail, and they certainly do not want to be paid meager wages—new ideas as a new way of doing things force uncomfortably and anxiety. When fear exists, we tend to grab hold of anything to make it stop. In panic and shame, we blame undocumented persons or the vacation economy rather than conclude that even the government can do something right every once in a while. Maybe in hindsight, the Florida man association is less about the truth and more a ringing of alarms. A subconscious way the world is communicating fundamental concern at what is happening in a state so closely associated with paradise. The sun soaks our skins at the very same time another graduating class filled with “Florida Men” walks across a high school stage, destined for underpayment and their fifteen minutes as America’s favorite punchline.