As Their Teachers Get Laid Off, Students Stage Protests

Students at Keller ISD and Katy ISD aren't taking teacher layoffs lying down. They're also not likely to be the only ones protesting.
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Katy Independent School District may not be the district facing the biggest round of layoffs in the state, but the pink slips slips hit a nerve. Last week, as administrators began pulling 350 district employees out of classrooms to tell them they should start looking for new jobs, students got upset. And got active.

Hundreds of students (thousands if you believe YouTube interviews with some of the kids) protested and walked out of several high schools and middle schools Thursday. By Friday, according the KHOU television, one high school was on lockdown. No one’s been disciplined yet, but supposedly Monday, those still protesting will face consequences.

That might be enough to settle things down for a while, but Katy’s hardly the only district facing major layoffs—or the only one with angry students. Only two days earlier, 500 students staged a “sit-in” at Keller ISD as the district prepares to let go of 120 “probationary” teachers—those who haven’t yet worked two consecutive years in the district. Across the state, public school students will continue to learn just what the human cost of budget cuts really are—and we’ll probably see quite a few more students try to fight back.

The number of teacher layoffs could get pretty stunning. This is the first time in decades that schools districts don’t actually know the minimum amount they’ll get from the state. Districts must plan their own budgets for next year even as the Legislature is still deciding budget cuts, thanks to a $27 billion budget shortfall. The state House passed a budget that slashed a devastating $7.8 billion from public school funding, while the Senate seems determined to cut “only” $4 billion—the maximum sustainable cut according to the commissioner of education. Meanwhile, there’s potentially good news. Texas is likely to receive its $830 million in federal money to help save education jobs, and there’s always the unlikely possibility that the Legislature will consider options beyond just budget cuts—like closing tax loopholes to bring in more money or using more than just $3 billion from the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to help soften the budget blows. In the end, the final amount cut will likely be somewhere in between the House and Senate versions of the budget. 

But even knowing the total budget cut wouldn’t necessarily help districts. To make such drastic cuts, lawmakers must create a new system for distributing money to schools. Already, Texas has a complex school finance system that delivers different districts vastly unequal amounts per capita. Now the state must determine exactly how it will deliver the cuts. Which districts will take the biggest hits? The House has already heard two bills that offer different ways to distribute cuts. The Senate hears its first school finance bill Monday morning. (I’ll have a post on that later on Monday.) 

Districts won’t find out what they’ll get until the end of the legislative session—assuming that lawmakers can get it done by then. But districts can’t wait that long. They have to plan ahead for next year’s budget, and if they don’t layoff the teachers now, they’re obligated to keep the teachers on for next year.  Which means, if the state doesn’t come through, many of the districts won’t be able to make payroll in September. Still, most districts are hoping they’ll be able to hire these teachers back.

In the meantime, this is the time that most teachers will find out if they have a job next year. And while the budget crisis isn’t news, the layoffs across the state within a supposedly valued profession are stunning. Waco ISD is planning to cut around 180 employees, “most” of whom are teachers. The school board of Spring Branch ISD has decided to eliminate 350 positions. And over in Round Rock ISD, the school board voted to lay off 242 employees. In Houston, the biggest school district in the state, 950 teachers are on the chopping block. That’s just a sampling—and there’s more to come.

It’s easy to glaze over at the steady trickle of layoffs. Given the budget crisis, there’s not a lot of good news this legislative session, and inside the Capitol, people acclimate to the numbers, the jobs lost, the people hurt. It’s all too much, and it stops feeling real.

Not so, for the students at Keller and Katy. They didn’t take the bad news lying down—and as districts across the state get ready for the cuts, I’m going to bet we haven’t seen the last student protest over teacher layoffs. 

Adolescents have always known a thing or two about outrage. Right now, it’s a lesson we might all learn from.