The Gummy Bear Lobby
My latest print column:
In the Senate Education Committee hearing room, gummy bears were getting stuck between the seat cushions. Crumbs from animal crackers spread over the floor while some of those waiting to speak began coloring on the walls. “Cutting public education funding by over $9 billion might keep me from learning to read at grade level,” said Jose, age 6. First-grader Cindy, who was waiting for her turn to speak, began to get impatient until someone handed her a juice box. Luckily, the committee broke for nap-time.
Well, it’s a nice scene, right? Too bad I just made it up.
In truth, the education committee heard from superintendents and a few parents as hearings began over proposals to cut more than $9 billion from Texas schools. As the state House and Senate continue to discuss education, we’ll hear from plenty of textbook lobbyists and teacher’s groups. But not so much from those who can speak most directly to the impact on their lives. Hearings on reductions in social services often include heart-rending testimony from those affected. But when it comes to education, talk tends to turn to the businessy side of education, with superintendents and product vendors throwing around words like “efficiency” and “flexibility.” Instead of, you know, “education.”
With the unprecedented cuts being contemplated, school districts will be hard-pressed to find the funds to keep their schools operating. How bad could it be? Here’s one measure: Under current state law, the proposed budget-slashing is so severe that it can’t even go into effect—unless lawmakers change the current minimal funding requirements. Another measure: The current House budget has zero funding for instructional materials, even as schools are due for new science and English books, and tests based on the new curricula are supposed to start next year.
At the actual first meeting of the Senate Education Committee, a slew of superintendents from districts as big as Dallas and as small as Millsap Independent School District (total students: 770) came to speak. By and large, they did not push the senators to meet the state’s current obligations, appearing resigned to the potentially devastating cuts. Most of the witnesses focused on where school districts could trim—if only the state would loosen its regulations and let them. There were two consistent requests: raising class-size limits, and reforming the ways to hand out furloughs and pink slips to teachers. Senators, meanwhile, held forth about the need for cutting teachers’ aides and increasing class sizes.
The costs of inadequate education aren’t always easy to quantify. And with a $27 billion budget deficit, those who rely on health and human-service programs are also bracing for big cuts. But some of those people, unlike Cindy or Jose, can come to advocate for themselves. “My muscles will become weak and atrophied” if certain programs are cut, explained Hayden Adkins, a 29 year-old with cerebral palsy. She was one of hundreds of witnesses before the Senate Finance Committee who receive services directly. By the end of the testimony, most of the senators were promising to do what they could to protect programs that help people like Adkins.
There’s no equivalent for schools. With superintendents and lobbyists serving as the faces and voices of this public service, it’s easy to miss the human costs of these cuts.
When Education Commissioner Robert Scott came to talk to the Senate Finance Committee about the drastic cuts, he said his first priority was getting $6 billion more to put into public schools. His argument: Without it, there will undoubtedly be lawsuits from parents and districts. Scott did go on to express concern that schools wouldn’t be able to educate. “These are bare bones for what we need to continue to move on,” he said.
But his eager-to-please demeanor rubbed some Democrats the wrong way.
“How do you make it work when you’re losing hundreds of millions of dollars?” asked a frustrated Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. When it came to the need for instructional materials, Whitmire pushed Scott to be explicit. “I was asking you to put a face on how that impacts a student,” the senator said, “and why we ought to be concerned.”
But Scott, dressed in his nice suit and conveying an eager-to-please boyishness, isn’t the face of public schools. Parents and children are. Most of the time, parents protest to their local district when funding cuts come. This year, they’d be better served by organizing caravans to the Capitol, kids and gummy bears in tow.