The signs rivaled the most ardent Tea Party affair—and so did the disaffection. As if taking a cue from the rallies that swept the nation earlier this year, an estimated 11,000 parents, teachers and kids arrived at the Capitol steps to argue against the proposed $10 billion cut to education funding. At the front of the dense crowd, frustration and anger were in the air.
“I will march headlong into the teeth of your horrific blame machine and I will teach these kids,” shouted John Kuhn, the superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District. The crowd roared as Kuhn went on, lambasting the testing system and the “subtle segregation of the poor and the desperate. Do not be surprised when the men and women in this building fail to stand up for you, when they fail to stand up for the children day after day,” the superintendent roared to the screaming crowd. “They do not share the courage of a common school teacher!”
The signs, almost entirely homemade, were equally damning: “Will teach for food,” “Texas: Open for Business, Closed for Schools” and even “Pontius Perry can’t wash this off.”
Named Save Texas Schools, the rally had been organized in six weeks by parents and teachers horrified at discovering the impacts of budget cuts to their local school districts. The main message was simple: spend the Rainy Day fund on education. Facing a $27 billion budget deficit, lawmakers are still debating whether or not to use some or all of the $9 billion fund. At the rally, organizers were pushing the state to use that money for education, almost entirely. Speakers frequently shouted, “It’s raining!” And the crowd hoisted up their umbrellas even though it was a warm, sunny day.
The sheer number of participants made the event a political success. In case there was any doubt that state legislators could make drastic cuts and escape the next elections unscathed, the crowd was a show of force. Organizers said over 300 school districts were represented and the crowd was diverse in terms of race, age and twangy accents. The entire rally had a distinctly “school” feel. The information desk passed out snacks that only parents would think to get: apple slices and granola bars, peanut butter crackers and Chex mix. I spotted 13 state representatives, five Republicans and eight Democrats. The organizers opted not to let any state lawmakers speak, instead lining up a series of teachers and superintendents. Student performances from a Beaumont school choir and an Austin “positive hip-hop” group gave the dorkier members of the crowd a chance to feel cool.
Despite the evident passion, it’s unlikely the state will spend the entirety of the Rainy Day fund, and spending it all on education would hardly satisfy advocates for nursing homes and health clinics. Education and health and human services make up the vast majority of state spending, and therefore took the heaviest funding hits. While schools could take up to $10 billion in cuts, other areas, like Medicaid provider rates and funding for community health care also stand to lose a tremendous amount. But then, that’s hardly the type of lecture people want to hear at a rally.
Once in a while, Allen Weeks, the chair of Save Texas Schools, would inject some of the complicated policy into the day, but he generally retreated pretty quickly. “I’m going to give you a math lesson and a history lesson,” he told the crowd at one point. In 2006, “our legislators changed the way schools are funded. I’m not going to get into the details but I’m going to tell you something: It didn’t work.” The analysis wasn’t exactly nuanced, but he was correct. In 2006, the Legislature changed the way schools were funded, by cutting property taxes by a third. To replace lost revenue, the lawmakers instituted a broad-based business franchise tax and raised cigarette taxes. But the swap didn’t balance out—the franchise tax never performed the way lawmakers hoped and now, the state cannot bring in the money to balance budgets.
To actually fix the system, lawmakers might have to consider either creating or raising taxes to account for the lost revenue. That part didn’t come up much in the rally, although it did on signs. In a happy coicidence, the statewide asessment tests are currently known as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills—or TAKS. Many signs compared over-taxing and over-TAKS-ing. (Get it?) A chant of “Fix the funding!” also gained quite a bit of steam in between speakers.
After the rally, I asked Save Texas Schools spokesman Jason Sabo why the rally didn’t focus more on the specifics of taxation. Sabo, who spends his weekdays lobbying for various non-profits, said expanding or raising taxes isn’t a realistic option, thanks to the stances of the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House. “The game is the Rainy Day fund,” he said, “so let’s focus our energies there.”
The crowd, which arrived with gusto, trickled out slowly, and by the time a pastor gave the benediction, most of participants had gone to find bathrooms and snacks for worn out and cranky kids.