AUSTIN, Texas – About 1,000 public school teachers and their supporters rallied at the Capitol here March 17 to stop the cuts in public education funding proposed by the business lobby and the right-wing extremists who control state government. The rally was part of a Statewide Lobby Day organized by the Texas Federation of Teachers (TFT).
It was the second biggest statewide teachers’ rally in two weeks. The crowd included teachers, school support personnel, and solidarity representatives from the United Auto and Aerospace Workers, Amalgamated Transit Union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the Texas State Employees Union.
The state is facing a $10 billion budget shortfall in fiscal years 2004 and 2005. Right wingers like Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, and Speaker of the House Craddick want to make up this shortfall by cutting the state budget by 12.5 percent, including $2.7 billion cuts in state grants to public schools.
Those at the rally scolded the rightwingers for daring to balance the state’s budget on the backs of school children. They urged legislators to consider the money spent on public education as an investment in children and an investment in Texas. They also demanded that big businesses be made to pay their fair share of the cost of education.
The proposed cuts will have dire consequences for public education. Classroom sizes will increase, spreading thin the attention that teachers can give to individual students. Qualified teachers will leave for better jobs as the paltry pay and benefits that teachers receive fail to keep up with the rising cost of living. Programs designed to help children with special needs will be cut. Children will be left behind.
Fighting the cuts will be an uphill battle, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of those at the rally. The crowd cheered when speakers urged them to build a grassroots campaign to fight these cuts.
State Representatives from around the state spoke to the rally. Rep. Garnett Coleman of Houston asked the crowd if they were ready to “raise some hell,” and they responded with a big “Yes, we’re ready!” Coleman vowed to fight the budget cuts, “even if we have to shut this place down.” The crowd roared back their approval.
Several speakers praised the progress made in public education over the last decade. For example, achievement tests scores have improved steadily over the last ten years. They pointed out that those primarily responsible for this improvement are the teachers.
Texas educators rightfully think that their progress deserves some reward, but the right wing leaders of the state don’t agree. They are using the budget cuts as a pretext to worsen teachers’ working conditions. Under the guise of giving local school boards and administrators flexibility to deal with the proposed budget cuts, they’ve introduced legislation that takes away teachers’ planning period, their duty free lunch, and right to due process in disciplinary hearings.
The rally participants didn’t have to wait long for their first victory: SB 744, a bill that would strip teachers of their right to have their union dues withheld from their paycheck, died on Lobby Day.
State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, while speaking at the rally, told everyone that he had a petition to kill the bill that required only 11 Senators’ signatures. He then took out the petition and signed it on the spot. Then Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston walked up to the podium, took out a pen, and signed it too. The applause grew louder. By the end of the day, there were 13 signatures on the petition.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the cuts is that Texas is a rich state that could afford to pay more for education. John Cole, president of TFT, said that given Texas’s wealth, “it wasn’t right to cut money from public education.”
Despite the proposed cuts to public education, a voucher pilot has been introduced that will siphon off scarce public education resources, giving those funds to private schools and private education schemes.
Those at the rally challenged legislators to look for ways to raise revenue to fund public education adequately rather than cutting the budget and using vouchers to divert education dollars to their cronies.
On April 9, there will be a march, rally, and lobby day against budget cuts sponsored by the Texas State Employees Union and supported by the state AFL-CIO.
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