Funding Texas’ education system has been a divisive issue over the past year, and key officials overseeing the state’s public schools met earlier this month to ensure that the dialogue continues. Last year, in the midst of a slow economic recovery, many states were faced with significant budget shortfalls, and Texas was no different. With about $100 billion in federal stimulus drying up, the education system was going to be hit especially hard across the country.
However, unlike most other states, Texas had set aside a rainy day fund to prepare for a fiscal emergency. The Texas legislature became ground zero over the spring and summer of 2011 as fiscal conservatives and pro-education legislators debated on whether to open the state’s rainy day fund to prevent cuts to education spending.
Last March, Save Our Schools, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan, statewide coalition,” held the largest rally in modern history at the capitol in Austin. The event attracted over 12,000 educators, parents, students and legislators from across the state.
However, a bill to open up the rainy day fund did not make it out of committee in June, causing many districts to tighten their belts and cut their budgets, which resulted in the firing of thousands of Texas teachers.
The results did not just affect students inside the classroom. Dallas ISD was forced to close 11 neighborhood schools and lengthen the school day. A school district in South Texas was forced to cut its athletic program just to keep students in the classroom.
Months later, the fight to keep Texas’s schools competitive seemed lost, yet a large crowd continued the fight by meeting at Northside ISD’s activity center on Feb 3 to educate citizens on how to continue spreading the message to anyone who would listen. Among the speakers were John Folks, Superintendent of Northside ISD; Connor Brantley, a 14-year-old student from Fort Worth; State Representative Mike Villarreal; and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Each of the speakers shared the common belief that, in spite of the costs, education is a valuable and necessary component of a student’s life, and students should receive the best education possible, the schools must have all of the necessary resources available to them. As Brantley noted, the Texas Constitution specifically states that the Texas legislature has an obligation to the state’s public school system.
There were parents at the meeting who spoke first hand about the problems their children face in the classroom each day. They spoke of children who wore the same uniform everyday because they did not have the money to afford more clothes for school. They also spoke on how much harder it is for a teacher to prevent bullying while trying to teach classes that have become almost too large to control.
As Castro pointed out, however, education is not simply an issue that affects teachers and students, but also is a measure of future job growth and opportunity.
“The currency of success in the 21st century global economy truly is knowledge,” Castro said.
Castro is a proud product of San Antonio’s public school system. His father was a teacher, and the mayor himself has even delved into teaching from time to time. He recounted his experience as a recent college graduate who briefly worked as a substitute teacher. Although he jokingly wondered why his youthful appearance never got him into trouble with a hall monitor, he expressed deep respect for teachers who work long, hard days in the classroom.
But in spite of a standing-room-only audience and moving speakers some disturbing facts apply to Texas’s education system. Texas consistently ranks near the bottom in terms of standardized testing performance, high school dropout and graduation rates, and the number of Texans who have a high school diploma. Those gathered at the meeting were quick to point out these facts, but their fight to keep school funding competitive is far from over.
The Texas legislature faces many problems, and with a limited budget, schools may not be the first in line to receive funding in the future. However, Castro did note that change must come from the bottom up, and his call to arms to voters surely met willing ears.
The mayor boldly proclaimed that “I know that when things go right in our classrooms, in our schools, that profound impact—positive impacts—can be made in the lives of our students.”