Failing Grades


State lawmakers are weighing a proposed 2012-2013 state budget that could impose draconian cuts on the state’s already piss-poor educational system. Schools, teachers, innovative programs—they are all in danger of being cut in the name of fiscal austerity. “This bill reflects the reality of the recession on Texas,” is how Rep. Jim Pitts, a Republican from Waxahachie, put it when he uncorked the proposed budget.

The massive cutbacks were surely coming at almost every level of education—but it was almost as if reporters were surprised when they began examining the budget proposals coughed up by Pitts and others. The news reports had a breathless quality. The overarching sense was that “we didn’t know it was going to be this bad.”

Which begs a simple question: Why not?

Stripped to the bone, with fewer reporting boots on the ground, Texas news outlets made the usual mistake in the last several months before the legislative session. They concentrated on horse-race coverage of political campaigns, they focused on narrow “truth in advertising” analyses of political promises, and they were entranced by the top-of-the-ballot battle between incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Bill White.

Editors really needed to order reporters out of the air-conditioned corridors of power in Austin and hightail it into the heart of Texas. They needed to stop schmoozing with lobbyists and kingmakers in Austin and get to South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas. They needed to get to Bowie Elementary School in Abilene and Ramiro Barrera Middle School in Rio Grande City—to put a human face on the story that educators and parents were already forecasting firsthand.

Texas school districts and administrators have been operating on a wing and a prayer for years. The gap between the rich districts and the poor districts is ever-widening. Good teachers were already being cut, arts programs were in danger, and playgrounds were increasingly pockmarked. The budget crisis—the disconnect between tax revenue and educational spending—was apparent to many teachers and principals. They knew the numbers weren’t adding up. It’s one thing to scream for property tax cuts, but another to magically find the money to buy books, computers and basketball hoops.

Back when I slaved at The Dallas Morning News office in Austin that covers state government, I listened one day as the bureau chief announced: “Only one hundred people read our stories. And it’s the same one hundred people over and over again.”

He was referring to lobbyists, other Capitol reporters, lawmakers and other insiders who love bumping into each other along a small stretch of Congress Avenue. He was admitting that there wasn’t enough deep, contextual, immersion reporting. No human-interest reporting. The stories were written and reported in a dutiful way that reflected bureaucratic realities—but not in any passionate, anecdotal way that reflected the reality of life. Where was the real Texas?

The News still sends several reporters into the state Capitol. The Texas Tribune does the same. They are two of the engines of daily state government coverage, and they are using every form of multimedia to show what is unfolding under the Big Tent. Still, the reporting on education cuts seems like desperate Monday morning quarterbacking mixed with the exploration of triage plans. Do we tap the Rainy Day Fund, is it possible to raise taxes, do we try some fiscal alchemy?

These times require media outlets to pick their battles carefully, and education is always under-reported. It has everything to do with the futures of millions of children. Maybe, if the students’ realities had been chronicled vividly, today’s education news wouldn’t be so breathless.

And maybe, if the media had held an accurate mirror to the embattled educational system in Texas, we wouldn’t be in this crisis.