by Kimberly Burkett
I’ve lived in Texas long enough to realize that Governor Rick Perry’s call in his state of the state address this week for improvements in infrastructure and education was a surprising, yet welcomed relief. It’s a relief to those of us who understand the critical importance of water. It’s a relief to those of us who sit in gridlocked traffic 10 to 15 hours per week because of decaying highways that ceased to keep up with growth over a decade ago. The governor that protected the rainy day fund last session as if it were his own personal nest egg, even suggested tapping $3.7 billion from the coveted fund for these much-needed infrastructure improvements. Welcomed words indeed!
For those of us with children or interests in public schools; however, no relief was offered from last session’s $5.4 billion in budget cuts to public education. Sometimes what you don’t say speaks volumes, and this was true of Perry’s address. Despite proclamations by Perry that “the state is stronger than ever,” and “our bank balance is healthy, our economy is growing, our future is limitless,” Perry chose to blatantly ignore the plight of traditional public schools and the impact of last session’s budget cuts. Perry didn’t suggest restoring even a fraction of the billions cut from public education. Not one cent. No, those cuts will likely become institutionalized unless the courts find the state’s funding levels inadequate in the ongoing school finance case. (We’ll know more about that when the court rules next month.)
Rather than offering hope to beleaguered public schools, Perry’s address instead doubled down on the latest short-sighted reform attempts floated by Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) – efforts that essentially abandon traditional public education. While traditional public schools educate the vast majority of Texans (around five million students), and even educated Perry himself, the governor’s remarks indicated a clear and unapologetic disregard for our public schools. Instead his focus was on the legislature’s latest voucher scheme (make no mistake – that is exactly what the re-branded “tax credit scholarship” program is) and increasing the number of charter schools that pull funding from traditional public schools. Throughout the chest-pounding jubilation of our economic recovery that is apparently the envy of the other states, public education was cast aside like an uninvited party guest.
In fairness, Perry did suggest that reform efforts need “to be done in a fashion that continues to encourage teachers and administrators in traditional schools to produce excellent students.” With that small footnote, parents and educators, you received encouragement from your governor. Now, don’t try to take that encouragement to the bank – unfortunately encouragement doesn’t fund additional teachers or restore bussing, security personnel, or fine arts programs. Essentially, your governor is going to hope the best for your children as the state shrugs them off and instead focuses its efforts on charters and funneling tax dollars to private schools. Your child just became an afterthought as the state abandons traditional public education.
The abandonment of traditional public education didn’t begin with Perry’s address this week. In fact, it was formalized in the 2011 legislative session when Texas, for the first time since World War II, didn’t fund “enrollment growth.” Enrollment growth is a clever, euphemistic phrase used by lawmakers to downplay the fact that Texas abandoned children. That’s right – enrollment growth is children; mine and possibly yours. Enrollment growth consists of this year’s kindergarteners, first graders, and any new students to Texas’ public education system that did not receive state funding from the 82nd legislature. There were 160,000 of them.
Now, there are some, including TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, who suggest that discussions of restoring funding are premature until the school finance lawsuit is resolved later this year. To those cowards I say, my child will not wait. My child cannot wait. My child’s educational opportunities are NOW. He does not have time for you to find the political will to bring new revenues to schools or gain a newfound understanding of the state’s constitutional responsibilities to public education. While you explore the state’s pathway to privatization and charter schools, his educational opportunities are passing him by. Every day that you ignore public schools, Texas children just like mine sit in overcrowded classrooms using outdated (if any) technology. They go to schools that eliminated more than 15,000 teachers, social workers, counselors, and aides. They attend schools that reduced early childhood education, athletics, library services, tutoring, and summer school. They will not wait – their time is now.
Governor Perry, Texas parents and educators heard you pat yourself on the back for Texas’ strong economic rebound. We heard about the massive $12 billion rainy day fund. And we also heard your deafening silence to the needs of the traditional public schools that educate most of our children. There is no reasonable or rational explanation for not restoring public education funding when you readily proclaim that Texas “is stronger than ever” with revenues that have well surpassed projections. There is no reasonable or rational explanation for cutting a system that already scrapes the bottom of the barrel of state education funding in this nation. There is no reasonable or rational explanation for leaving schools to languish while you offer billions in tax breaks and exemptions to the corporations that will quickly pull up stakes when Texas can no longer offer an educated workforce. No, there is no explanation for institutionalizing those cuts other than blatantly walking away from the state’s responsibility to provide an adequate, free public education system.
Governor when you and lawmakers walk away from traditional public schools, you abandon my child and the five million Texas children those schools educate every day. You abandon the system that has educated Texans since 1840. You abandon the education system that this state’s founding fathers demanded and included in the state constitution. But, just as disappointing, you abandon Texas and her future. You abandon economic growth and future job opportunities. You abandon all Texans when you walk away from her public schools.
So please excuse us if we choose not to join in your jubilant celebration of the “Texas Miracle.” Unfortunately those of us with children or interests in public school don’t see that miracle. Instead we see an oncoming calamity and a grave disregard for the good of the majority of Texans and their children. And that isn’t anything to celebrate.