This spring, the Texas legislature, led by Governor Rick Perry, has committed assault against the students and teachers of the state of Texas -- a state which already is 44th in the nation in its funding of education.
Draconian budget cuts were threatened from the beginning of the session as lawmakers realized there would be a substantial budget shortfall(largely brought on by the Governor's and legislature's decision to reduce property taxes in 2006) and as Tea Party affiliated candidates funded by outside groups took an overly predominant role.
At the beginning of the legislative session, Governor Perry declared several items as emergencies, including sanctuary cities, abortion legislation, and more. But not education funding, despite being one of the biggest budget items in the state. So the best the legislature could do was put bandaids on the current system, basically making it easier to cut education services. They proposed bills that allowed districts to eliminate minimum teacher salaries, increase class sizes and lay off teachers more easily -- not because the teachers aren't qualified, but because the state is cutting funding. These bills erased decades of improvements made to Texas schools.
This past weekend, in a last minute filibuster that halted the hastily cobbled together education budget bill, Arlington, Texas Senator Wendy Davis spent an hour reading aloud letter after letter from constituents concerned about education. There were letters from parents, grandparents, special education students, teachers, librarians and more. These voters know what this is about -- it's not about improving education and it's not about education reform. It's about underfunding education; it's about turning their backs on local communities who may have to raise property taxes, on parents who hold constant fund-raisers to support their schools and even pay for teacher positions, on the students of this state whose college grant monies have been cut as well. It's about posturing in the face of a budget crisis, blaming it on the "will of the voters," meanwhile ignoring the will of the voters at the same time.
Now the Texas legislature finds itself in a special session as they attempt to address school finance again. But the over-emphasized influence of newly elected Tea Party candidates has prevented legislators from listening to the more reasoned voices of parents, teachers and students around the state, who are not part of a high-dollar, well-funded advocacy campaign, but individuals, pleading for the funds to provide a quality education for their children. The discomfort some legislators in both parties are beginning to feel about education budget cuts in the proposed budget last week was made clear in the final vote, which found people on both sides of the aisle voting against it.
In fact, polls of the state show that voters are torn almost equally between cutting government funding and saving education and Medicare funding; there is not an overwhelming majority on either side, despite the claims of conservative groups like Empower Texas who are intimidating legislators with their "rating" system.
And now as the special session begins a tweet from the floor of the House today indicated that Republicans hope to hurry education funding through before teachers get out of school at the end of this week. And Senator Dan Patrick tells Texas Monthly that he envisions this cut(proclaimed by some to be temporary) to be permanent:
"That is a true cut to government spending in the long term. This will save us $4 billion forever moving forward and begin to close the structural gap we have in education."
That's a permanent assault on education in a state that ranks 44th in the nation in education funding, yet is the 2nd fastest growing state for students under 18.
There are many consequences to this budget. One of the most agonizing for me to witness as a life-long educator is the message we are sending about education to our students and future teachers: In a state with a rapidly growing population, we are running new teachers out of the field by laying off new hires, discouraging a generation of college students from pursuing careers in education, and encouraging our most experienced and qualified teachers to retire early. What will this mean for the future of our classrooms as more and more students enter our state? Where will we find ourselves five years from now when we can't fill classrooms?
It's time for parents, students and educators around the state to demand and expect this legislature to come up with viable solutions to education funding. We need to show them we are listening, we are informed and we will be voting. And the legislators who have little taste for this budget need to stand up and find the political courage to speak out against special interests who, as Texas Monthly rightfully points out, have co-opted the grass-roots Tea Party movement to run over the voices of the general public.
It's up to each of us to speak up about the importance of education in every state across the nation, because the situation in Texas is being repeated in multiple states. But as parents, students, educators, grandparents -- we have a voice. We cannot let this happen. We need to lift up our voices against this assault on education loud and clear. We expect our students to be innovative, creative, and capable of finding solutions to problems. Shouldn't we expect the same from our legislators? There is a third way, and we need to help our legislators find it.