Austin Film Festival: The Texas Promise

Oscar-winner Vanessa Roth finds the lie and the hope in Texas schools

A complex documentary about a complex problem: The Texas Promise tries to put all the pieces together about what went wrong with Lone Star State schools

There's a few billion dollars missing from the Texas education budget, and every capitol and education reporter was a witness while the crime was committed. Plus everyone know who did it.

There are actually a couple of seconds in the opening of The Texas Promise during which I'm fairly sure I could see the back of my own head. It's definitely filled with Texas Legislature regulars, as documentarian Vanessa Roth uses parts of the live feed from the State House floor from the debate in 2011, during which lawmakers sliced out $5.4 billion from the public school finance funds. I was on the floor as an education reporter for those debates, watching as lawmakers made a Faustian pact that they rued even before it was signed. Her question is, what happened next?

The quick answer is, a lot. It also takes a lot of people to explain how slicing that money out really affected Texas schools and schoolchildren. To cram them in, Roth uses documentary tools in the box: archive footage of the bill being passed, talking-head interviews with lawmakers and policy experts familiar to Austin education wonks (including former Education Austin president Louis Malfaro), and footage shot within Texas' own beleaguered schools.

It's a return to the politics of childhood for Roth, but with a change in emphasis. Her earliest work, Taken In, Aging Out, and No Tomorrow, concentrated on the foster-care system. The Third Monday in October followed kids in the classroom, before taking the chalkboard POV for American Teacher (a not-so-subtle riposte to Davis Guggenheim's education reform movement infomercial Waiting for "Superman"). However, this time, rather than concentrating on individuals, she examines the whole machine, dissecting exactly what it is that Texas is doing to get such poor results.

It's close in tone and intent to The Revisionaries, the 2012 documentary from the trenches of the textbook wars: Not surprising, with that film's director, Scott Thurman, and cinematographer, Zachary Sprague, both working behind the lens here. That local knowledge can't hurt, since this is an almost impossibly convoluted mosaic of poor decisions, bad ideas, and neglect. Yet, and here's where Roth truly impresses, the film's grasp of all the key issues, in all their nuances, feels right.

She's also not afraid point fingers, to making chief cutters Sens. Dan Patrick and Donna Campbell look like buffoons (and there are many who were on the floor during the 2011 session who would hold that as a fair appraisal). Moreover, she subtly implies that there's a lot more to this than rampant fiscal conservatism gone awry, and finds underlying machinations that look painfully like determined efforts to destroy public ed.

The Texas Promise is, sadly, a portrait of a work in progress. It was fortuitously completed just in time for the next legislative session, and could become a primer for the incoming generation of freshmen law makers. However, it is already out of date, seemingly locked just before the final ruling from Judge John Dietz that, yes, the state of Texas' accounts aren't just bad, they're unconstitutional.

With that sense of present urgency, the end result plays a little like All the President's Men reads: That was written at the height of the Watergate scandal, when it looked like Nixon would get away scot-free. Yet like Woodward and Bernstein, even though it seems like malfeasance will win out, Roth remains inherently optimistic. Bleak as the system's inevitable outcome seems, she attributes good intentions and enough determination to enough people that it seems like, even though it's hollow now, the Texas promise could still one day be fulfilled.

The Texas Promise screens again at 6:30pm, Tuesday, Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center.

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The Texas Promise, Vanessa Roth, education funding, Austin Film Festival 2014

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