AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Hundreds of teachers gathered at the state Capitol on Thursday to urge Texas lawmakers to roll back $5.4 billion in public education cuts imposed two years ago, while nearby a coalition of foundations pushed for reforms without necessarily spending more money.
Members of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association fanned out for a lobbying full-court press, meeting with state senators and representatives for their home districts and explaining how the funding loss has prompted layoffs and wage freezes, larger class sizes and pre-kindergarten cuts. Some teachers said janitorial staff cutbacks have forced them to take out their own classroom garbage, while others complained the loss of aides and librarians has them trying to be two places at once.
"We need to stop putting Band-Aids on things and pretending like that's enough," said Janie Baszile, a teacher for 34 years in the Galena Park Independent School District in greater Houston. She led a small group from the area on a trek to see nine lawmakers.
The Texas Legislature, facing a $27 billion budget deficit prompted by a sluggish economy in 2011, voted to slash $5.4 billion from public schools and educational grant programs. The state's economic outlook is brighter now, but budget drafts in both the House and Senate for 2014-15 failed to restore the cuts.
One of the offices Baszile's group visited was that of Rep. Craig Eiland, a Texas City Democrat who was not in. Instead, staff member Ann Drescher listened to the group talk about deemphasizing high-stakes standardized testing and improving state classroom discipline mechanisms.
"Is there any talk about funding?" teacher Ruby Tanguma, finally asked. "That really hurt us." Tanguma is a specialist for students in second- to fifth-grade who need extra instruction in reading and math in the Bay City Independent School District.
Drescher said draft budgets didn't restore the cuts. "But there's still time before the final version is passed," she added.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who chairs the Senate Public Education Committee, appeared at a press conference in another corner of the Capitol with Texans Deserve Great Schools, a new group of policy experts and civic leaders. The coalition said it wants to apply other states' successful education policy to Texas.
It believes the state is adequately funding schools but should distribute that money better, said Caprice Young, vice president of education for the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which seeks to "minimize injustice in our society."
Texans Deserve Great Schools wants to lift the current cap of 215 charter schools licensed to operate statewide and believes public funding should go to cover charter facilities costs. It also wants to increase the number of Texas students who can earn school credit by taking courses online.
Additionally, the group is seeking to strengthen existing "parent trigger" laws so as to allow parents to petition to shut down a failing school after just two years. It further believes parents should have the option to send their children to the best public schools and not be "trapped by their zip code."
But the coalition stops short of endorsing voucher proposals that would let families use public money allotted for their children on private schools. "We're really about public schools," Young said.
Patrick has proposed expanding school vouchers, arguing that families who are wealthy enough buy homes in areas with quality school districts — while their low-income counterparts are trapped in poor-performing districts.
"We must have empowerment and we must have flexibility," Patrick said Thursday.
Many of the teachers at the Capitol said they oppose vouchers because private schools can turn away students deemed undesirable, meaning struggling kids will be stuck in public schools that will lose funding as their classmates bolt.
Vouchers supporters say they could increase teacher pay because there may be added demand for top educators. But Teresa Koehler, a 30-year teaching veteran in Clear Creek Independent School District, near League City, said "the key word there is 'may.'"
"In the past, what they say will happen has not happened," she said.