By Linda Bridges
In the wake of a state legislative session that produced unprecedented cuts of more than $5 billion from public education, the back-to-school verdict is already in: 75 percent of Texans say our state lawmakers should not have cut funding for public schools at all (Texas Poll, July 2011). In fact, 90 percent agree that our schools need more money from the state, not cuts.
The folks in charge in the state Capitol have unquestionably defaulted on their commitment to the schoolchildren of Texas. For at least the next two years, our students will be caught in the undertow of a grossly inequitable and inadequate system of school funding, just when high-need, economically disadvantaged children are becoming the supermajority in our schools. Our schoolchildren will have fewer teachers and educational aides to help meet rising state graduation requirements. Full-day pre-kindergarten classes simply will not be there for many thousands of eligible students. Nor will the extra services from reading specialists and academic coaches that have been making a difference for so many academically at-risk pupils. And that’s just a partial damage inventory.
Together, the governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker have led a shameful retreat from the state’s constitutional duty to give all our students a fair chance to succeed in school. They refuse to acknowledge that revenue needed for education is down because the Texas economy is not growing nearly as fast as they confidently assumed back in 2006, when they “reformed” school funding.
Their refusal to admit their mistake and make up for lost education revenue is a perfect example of penny-wise, pound-foolish policy that will continue to hold back economic growth. Instead of fixing this self-inflicted structural deficit, this year they chose to dismantle already-modest contract and compensation safeguards for teachers, inviting school districts to economize at the expense of their employees to make up for state cuts. Is laying off teachers, cutting their pay, and cramming more kids into their classrooms in the face of rising academic challenges a good way to prepare our students for college and careers?
Note the sad irony: The state’s leaders and their lieutenants in the legislature have put this drag on our state’s economic competitiveness at the very same time they tout the Texas approach as a model for the nation.
So what can be done when the state defaults on something as fundamental to our future as public education? Well, for one thing, school districts any day now are surely going to sue the state for violating the state constitution’s mandate to provide for an effective system of public education, and they are going to have a good case. But it will take a long time to reach a final court decision.
Some 69 percent of Texans in the poll mentioned above say they would support a local tax increase to support their public schools. For those districts that have not already hit the state-imposed cap on their local tax rate, that is an option.
Meanwhile, though, the kids can’t wait. You’re only five years old once. Parents, teachers, and friends of public education in the wider community are joining together to fill the gap, doing our best with what we have to give these students the education they deserve. As we head back to school, we urge all concerned citizens to enlist in this cause. Please get involved in advocacy and service through Their Future: Our Fight, Save Texas Schools, Parents Across America, Friends of Texas Public Schools, Raise Your Hand Texas, the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Parent PAC, your local PTA or PTO, or other groups that have sprung up to support public education. (Fellow teachers, that goes especially for you!)
But we all need to do something more, reaching beyond the comfort zone of the schoolhouse and into the polling place to change the status quo. The kids are worth it. Their future is our fight. As the folks from Save Texas Schools like to say: We’re watching, we remember, and we vote!