The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Underfunded and Overtested

Save Texas Schools builds groundswell for public education

By Michael King, February 22, 2013, News

"People should be outraged about that."

Austin Rep. Donna Howard was speaking about the politics side of the public education funding debate, from her ringside seat on the House Appropriations Committee. As she sees it, education in Texas is being held hostage to an ideological agenda of "limiting government and cutting the budget," despite the fact that there is broad public support to fund the public schools, and the resources are, in fact, available to do so – in part because the state cut public education by $5.4 billion last session. "Legislators need to hear, particularly from their own constituents, that this really did have an impact. It will continue to have an impact if we don't restore the funds."

That message will be carried this week by Save Texas Schools in its major march and rally this Saturday. "People are coming from all over the state," said Allen Weeks, chair of STS and also the director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth. He said that while Austin schools have felt some of the effects of the budget cuts, it's been more dramatic elsewhere. "Waco shut down nine schools, Dallas closed 11," he said. "And the staffing cuts have been multiplied all over the state, especially for children with special needs."

STS held its first mass Capitol rally during the 2011 session, turning out 12,000 people after only a few weeks of organizing. They did not succeed then in derailing the Legislat­ure's budget-slashing recklessness, but in the interim they've been building a statewide movement. Weeks is hoping that this year's march will be even more passionate. "Two years ago, people were more in a panic. From talking to people across the state, this year folks seem more knowledgeable, have more driving force behind them. They seem more energized and focused. ... They've seen and understand the results of what was done."

Finding Solutions

Weeks noted that students, parents, teachers, and even school trustees will be among the crowd, and Saturday morning will feature a press conference of school board members speaking out on behalf of public schools. Former U.S. Assistant Sec­re­tary of Education and public school advocate Diane Ravitch is the keynote speaker, and several legislators are expected to speak as well – especially since the overall goal is to build momentum at the Legislature in support of public schools. The theme is "No to underfunding and overtesting," and Weeks said, "We need to have a groundswell around funding that we've seen from parents around testing."

Also speaking will be former Texas Edu­ca­tion Agency Commissioner (2007-2012) Rob­ert Scott, a Rick Perry appointee who dismissed my suggestion that his presence might seem unusual. "I'm a product of Texas public schools, my children are a product of Texas public schools," he said. "I'm an avid supporter of Texas public schools and have been all of my life, so I don't think it's unusual at all." Currently of counsel in an Austin law firm, Scott also travels the country speaking about public education; he has been particularly critical of the growing role of high-stakes standardized testing. When he stepped down from TEA last year, he said the testing had become a "perversion of its original intent."

Scott had just attended a hearing of the Senate Education Committee and said he was encouraged by what he had heard: "an honest, open dialogue, beyond party, about what we really need to be doing for our kids." He said that the current accountability system has "overreached," for lack of resources. "I stood up last year and said I couldn't certify the ban on social promotion, because the Legislature didn't appropriate sufficient funds to provide remediation and intervention for the students who failed the test."

Scott said he thinks there is now significant legislative sentiment for improvement. "There's always that sentiment to wait for the courts; but I get a sense that they want to bring back at least some resources, at least to cover enrollment growth, and fund some intervention programs."

Of Saturday's events, Scott said, "I hope it's a positive rally; I hope it's not pointing fingers. We need to be focused on solutions."

A Time for Anger

The statewide movement represented by STS is encouraging, but there is as yet little evidence that the Legislature is ready to respond. Rep. Dawnna Dukes said that while "everyone knows there's a problem," thus far her colleagues seem reluctant to do anything before the courts rule on school finance. From what she's hearing, said Dukes, "The expectation is that there will not be an answer from the highest court until probably next summer, and at that time there will probably be a special session to deal with school finance."

Howard was similarly cautious, noting, "It really is early," but she added that some colleagues are also suggesting it's "too late" to do much for schools in this biennium. A constitutional percentage limit on increasing the total budget is another factor – if funding is not increased now, "that also limits what they can do in the future, because the base from which they will begin will be that much lower."

"Last session," Howard continued, "we were told we can't use the Rainy Day Funds because we're going to need those for Medicaid. And here we are, with an $8.8 billion surplus, and we're told that that needs to be used for Medicaid, and we still can't access the Rainy Day Fund. ... One of the reasons we have money in the bank is because we underfunded public education. People should be outraged about that, and demanding that we restore those funds."

On Saturday morning, you'll get a chance to follow Howard's suggestion.

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