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Save Our Schools!

Texans advance on Capitol in bid to preserve public schools

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 11, 2011

Austin teachers and staff rally outside AISD headquarters late last month.
Austin teachers and staff rally outside AISD headquarters late last month.
Photo by John Anderson

As the 82nd Texas Legislature reaches its midpoint, lawmakers are facing a gut check moment: Do they push through the $10 billion in planned cuts to public schools, or do they protect classrooms? The Save Texas Schools coalition wants them to do one thing: Come out of their offices on March 12, walk onto the Capitol grounds, and listen to the thousands of ordinary Texans who will be rallying for public education. The coalition's plan is to gather families, teachers, administrators, trustees, union activists, and business interests from across the state to tell legislators that cutting school funding is a terrible idea. "For those of us that have worked in the Legislature," said veteran education advocate and event organizer Allen Weeks, "there is a time for working inside, and there is a time for pressuring from the outside."

No state or federal lawmakers will be speaking at the rally. Instead, the organizers will invite them as guests of honor so that they might see just how unpopular their proposed cuts are in every corner of the state. (Full disclosure: Susan Moffat, community activist and wife of Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro, serves on the organizing committee for this event.) Save Texas Schools fundraising committee co-Chair Brian Donovan said he's inspired by the response coming from outside Austin. When the House released its draft budget, he said, "there were spitting mad editorials in Denton, Midland, and Odessa." With that popular pressure rising, Donovan said, "a huge rally of angry parents from all over the state seemed the tonic needed to bring the Lege and leadership around to funding education as much as possible."

By late February, Save Texas Schools already had 88 volunteer organizers around the state. That group includes people like Kimberly Miller, a Denton Independent School District resident whose whole family has signed up to help spread the word. Even though its population is rapidly expanding, Denton faces a $15 million-to-$16-million drop-off in state funding. "We've had a lot of public outcry in Austin about the cuts, and they have got coverage," said Miller. "But talking to districts outside of the capital, they've found it very hard to get their story heard."

The Save Texas Schools organizers soon found they were not alone in planning rallies and that others were eager to combine their efforts. Within days of the draft House budget being released, Weeks heard about statewide efforts being planned as far away as Pasadena and Arlington, where Leanne Rand was already working on her own protest. Like most parents of school-age children, Rand had heard about the state budget crisis. Yet it was purely an abstraction until the principal at her kids' high school explained what the district's projected $35 million shortfall would mean on his campus: fewer staff, less money for maintenance, and the loss of programs like Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities. Rand said, "Frank­ly, it made me mad, and I said something like, 'We should march on Austin – I am going to organize a Million Mom March.'" While she admits she was half-joking at first, she was quickly contacted by parents who wanted to get involved, along with groups and businesses that wanted to sponsor Arlington's attendance at the march.

The Dads Club at Arlington's Butler Ele­ment­ary is pooling money to cover travel costs for teachers, and that effort is simply one part of a bigger push to get everyone informed about the issues and solutions. The North Arling­ton Education Alliance has scheduled a series of campus-based information sessions to walk people through the numbers. Butler Dads Club communications officer David Wil­banks is particularly worried about the extra stress the situation is placing on kids, but so far, he said, "Parents are uninformed as to how the state and our district woke up and found ourselves in this situation."

Daunting Numbers

Aside from raw passion, the protesters have some cold, hard statistics on their side. The state cuts have been sold as a money-saver. However, the Center for Public Policy Priorities warns that the economic impact of throwing roughly 189,000 education workers out of their jobs could be catastrophic, leaving Texas liable for more than $670 million in unemployment insurance payments. Combine those endangered posts with the threatened cuts to health care and social services, and Texas could lose 250,000 public employee positions. For context, in December 2010 the state unemployment rate stood at 8.3%, with 977,600 people on the unemployment rolls. Dump an extra quarter-million workers on the job market, and the jobless rate would shoot above 10%.

Save Our Schools!
Graphic courtesy of Ben Rush

That would be the tip of the iceberg. In 2009, lawmakers allocated $271 million to schools for computers and classroom technology. Under the current draft budgets, that technology allotment is zeroed out, hitting educational technology vendors hard. Academ­ic publishers have already been warned that Texas may not have the $520 million needed for new textbooks. Similarly, districts that cannot afford to pay their staffs would have a tough time convincing voters to spend money on bonds – a potential body blow for builders and contractors.

Hardcore fiscal conservatives and anti-government tea partiers may take solace from Congressman Ron Paul's recent comments that "education is not a right." Whatever Paul might believe, providing for education is an obligation of the Legislature under the first section of Article 7 of the Texas Constitution: "A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools." Beyond that simple requirement, the current political climate under the pink dome is undoubtedly changing. On Feb. 28, Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bry­an, said that the current base budget would "decimate" public education. House Approp­riations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxa­ha­chie, recently told his fellow lawmakers that, if they were looking for something to trim, "the Texas budget doesn't have fat."

Even the otherwise parsimonious Texas Association of Business has voiced concerns that slicing education funding now will endanger the state's long-term economic viability. The group has called on lawmakers to use $1.9 billion from the Available School Fund to continue funding all-day prekindergarten and the technology allotment, as well as providing the updated textbooks required for the new curriculum. Normally a staunch opponent of government spending, TAB President Bill Ham­mond has become a vocal advocate for protecting education today to create better workers tomorrow. Hammond said, "The Legis­lature can and should invest in education and should make substantive reforms that ensure excellence over mediocrity."

As a sign of how much of a political paradigm shift Save Texas Schools could be, Ham­mond is currently penciled in along with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to speak at the March 12 rally. Weeks described that diversity of voices as vital in breaking any misconceptions about the breadth of support. He said, "If it's another rally that people can say, 'Oh, it's those people again,' then it's not very effective."

Finding the Margins

Weeks said he accepted that there will have to be some cuts, but now lawmakers are searching for innovative ways to make them without disrupting education. Houston Democrat Rep. Scott Hochberg's House Bill 233, which would cut costly testing time for elementary and middle school students, has already gained bipartisan support. Another bill surviving committee review is Senate Bill 912 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, which would change the deadline and process for telling a teacher that his or her contract will not be renewed. While the bill would not stop any cuts, it would allow districts to make hiring decisions with a clearer idea of what the state budget actually looks like. Backed by many education groups, including the Texas Association of School Boards and teachers' union Texas AFT, the change could avert the kind of panic caused when the Austin Independent School District published its proposed reduction-in-force layoff list in February.

Beyond these administrative changes, there are even bills being filed that would expand the state's financial obligations to education. Under SB 597, Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, proposes letting charter schools use the Permanent School Fund to back their construction bonds. Similarly, Ogden filed Senate Joint Resolution 29, a constitutional amendment whereby the state would buy textbooks for private schools. A new subsidy may not sit well with Democrats or fiscal conservatives, especially when the state is already struggling to foot those bills for regular public schools. However, other measures that were previously considered politically toxic are now getting their days in committee. Ogden's fellow Bryan GOPer Rep. Fred Brown has filed HB 106, redrawing the patchwork of school districts along strict county boundaries. Similarly, in HB 1597 Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, asks for a two-year, 2-cent increase in the sales tax. Menendez calculates that would raise $6 billion and create long-term savings. In a statement, he said, "None of us want to pay more taxes but it is far cheaper to educate our children than it is to incarcerate them."

Weeks' hope is that the demonstration will show lawmakers that average Texans want them to protect public education. Just as importantly, he hopes the march will finally turn the national spotlight on Texas schools. "Some people are positioning Texas as a model for the future. ... But if this is that model, we want the rest of the nation to look at it and say, 'Is this the future we want?'"


Save Texas Schools demonstration, March 12. Pre-rally march begins at 11am at 12th & Trinity; rally begins at noon at the Texas state Capitol, 1100 Congress. See www.savetxschools.org.

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