Texans rally to save our schools

About 4,500 educators, parents, and other public education supporters rallied in Austin on March 24 to save Texas’ public schools, which suffered $5.5 billion in funding cuts last year and are facing more on the horizon.

Speakers at the rally, organized by the Save Our Schools coalition, said that if public school supporters waited until next year to fight impending public education budget cuts, it will be too late. They urged those in the audience to take information they learned at the rally back home and use it to organize support for re-funding public education.

Diane Ravitch, a professor of education history at New York University and a leading advocate for a progressive, national public education policy, sent a message of support to those at the rally. Ravitch, who was attending a similar event in Oregon, said that she grew up in Texas and knew first hand how important good public schools were to the health and well-being of the state’s economy and civil society.

Unfortunately, the de-funding of public schools threatens to undermine not just public education but the whole of society. “Without public education,” Ravitch said. “Our whole society will suffer.”

She said that the people cutting public education budgets are the same ones who want to divert more public funding to privately operated charter schools and privately owned testing companies.

John Folks, superintendent of the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, gave the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry a failing grade for passing a school finance budget that cut $4 billion from the state’s primary source of school funding and another $1.5 billion in grant funding that supports special programs such as dropout prevention and pre-K classes.

Folks said that last year’s budget cuts resulted in 12,000 fewer teachers in the classroom, larger class sizes, the closure of schools, fewer student services such as counselling, and cutbacks in vocational education. He blamed the cuts on the state’s structural deficit–an antiquated tax system that doesn’t produce enough revenue to keep up with Texas’ growing student population.

In 2006, Texas lowered property taxes statewide, Folks said. Lawmakers promised to make up this lost revenue with a business margins tax, but the tax is so full of loopholes that it never generated the promised revenue. Last year, it brought in $5 billion less than anticipated, nearly the entire sum of the school funding cuts. That $5 billion annual shortfall will continue to repeat itself unless the structural deficit is addressed.

He also said that more teacher layoffs and reduced services will take place when school begins next fall unless Gov. Perry and the Legislative Budget Board free up $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s $9 billion plus reserve fund, to make up the anticipated shortfall.

John Kuhn, superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, located in a rural area about 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth, said that the over use of standardized testing has perverted education, “killing knowledge that is not on the test. It also erodes the autonomy and authority of local school boards.”

Kuhn said that it was a shame that lawmakers could find $500 million to pay a British company called Pearson to produce a new standardized test while at the same time it was cutting education spending by $1,000 per student and that state leaders have chosen to focus education spending solely on improving standardized testing results while ignoring societal factors that lead to poor performance in the classroom–parental unemployment, racial inequality, child homelessness,  poverty, etc.

Those attending the rally were urged to pick up a pamphlet, Building Support for Public Education, and share the information with friends and neighbors. The pamphlet among other things debunks some of misinformation used to justify cuts to education. For example, public education opponents say that half the state’s education budget is wasted on administrative expenses. The fact is that 49 cents of every education dollar funds goes to teachers, 43 cents funds campus expenses such as transportation, utilities, lunches, building maintenance, etc., and only 8 cents funds administration.

Those at the rally were urged to get involved in the upcoming primary elections whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. “You need to stand up and ask every candidate whether he or she supports Texas public schools or supports cutting their budgets,” said one speaker.

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