Isn't it About the Students?

Our expenditures reflect our values. The students who attended the budget forum last week seemed to know what is important. The question is, do those governing them know that?
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Last week my school district held a forum for local legislators about the education budget crisis in Texas.

Texas Representatives Donna Howard and Paul Workman were joined by Texas Senator Kirk Watson to share their perspectives on the education budget shortfall and the financial crisis Texas finds itself in.

But the real "stars" of the forum were the students -- students who stood up and spoke passionately about their education. Students who asked hard questions. (My favorite--"Why IS education funding discretionary?") They challenged the legislators to take advantage of this opportunity to think outside of the box -- to come up with not just short-term fixes, but long-term solutions. They pondered the irony of spending funds to roll out new state testing meanwhile putting districts in the position of reducing staff. They asked why schools that are performing highly on tests have to take them every year and waste student learning time and waste funds as well. And they spoke eloquently about how important their education is to their future.

They, and their teachers, tried to put a human face on what these drastic budget reductions mean for students in their state -- larger class sizes, reduced teacher attention, reduction in programs. As English teacher Chris Proctor reminded the panel, "You get what you pay for."

On both technology and library discussion forums, I've seen school after school posting lists of layoffs and closures; of shuttering schools, laying off technology staff and closing libraries. An estimated 100,000 educators will lose their jobs this year. One hundred thousand in Texas alone.

Meanwhile Governor Rick Perry boasts that Texas will blaze a trail for other states to follow. In his inaugural address, he proclaimed that "You might say historians will look back at this century and call it the Texas century. Americans once looked to the East Coast for opportunity and inspiration, and then they went to the West Coast. Today they are looking at the Gulf Coast, and they're looking to Texas."

What are they looking to Texas for? A trail of a gutted education system? A trail of missed opportunities for children in need? A trail of wasted talents of so many excellent educators across the state who will find themselves out of work for the first time in their careers? A trail of gross financial waste -- while new computers sit unused due to lack of technology staff to maintain them and libraries turned into locked warehouses, shut because there's no one staffing them?

According to statistics released by the Texas Legislative Study Group on the State of the State, Texas isn't blazing much of a trail. While Texas ranks 2nd in school enrollment due to influx of new students, it ranks 44th in state and local expenditures per student, 45th in SAT scores, 43rd in high school graduation rates. Texas stands first in the nation of uninsured children, and fourth for children living in poverty.

Yet in his inaugural speech on January 18, 2011, Texas Governor Perry intoned, "As Texans, we always take care of the least among us. The frail, the young, the elderly on fixed incomes, those in situations of abuse and neglect, people whose needs are greater than the resources at their disposal -- they can count on the people of Texas to be there for them."

Texas has a rainy day fund balance which could be used to offset the shortfalls in the state budget. A fund balance that tops $9 billion dollars. But Governor Perry refuses suggestions to tap into that fund, meant for shortfalls such as these, emphasizing "We must protect the rainy day fund," and suggesting that rather Texas can overcome budget problems by "setting priorities, cutting bureaucracy, reducing spending and focusing on what really matters to Texas families." Isn't 'what really matters to Texas families' giving their children the education they deserve and the health care they need? And exactly what is Texas protecting the rainy day fund for?

Our expenditures reflect our values. The students who attended the budget forum last week seemed to know what is important. The question is, do those governing them know that?

It's time to set political posturing aside. It's time to remember that it's about the students.

If you would like to remind Texas legislators know what's really important, join a grassroots organization established by parents, Save Texas Schools, in a statewide march to the capitol on March 12 in Austin, Texas.

Carolyn Foote blogs at Not So Distant Future.

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