AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — About 2,000 teachers, students, parents and school administrators rallied at the state Capitol on Saturday, demanding that the Legislature reverse $5.4 billion in cuts to public education amid new data that Texas now spends less per-pupil than almost anywhere else in America.
Led by thunderous high school marching bands whose drumbeats echoed off surrounding buildings, protesters marched briefly through downtown Austin and then gathered for the annual demonstration organized by Save Texas Schools and other advocacy groups.
Turnout was stronger than last year, when the biannual Legislature was not in session, but it fell far short of the 10,000 some had expected. A large video screen had been erected for the event.
In 2011, still reeling from the Great Recession, the Texas Legislature voted to cut $5.4 billion from public schools and educational grant programs. School districts say the reductions have been especially punishing since they coincided with increased accountability standards, new and more difficult standardized tests and the state's booming population. Enrollment has surged by at least 70,000 students per year.
The National Education Association announced Friday that Texas' per-student spending had fallen to 49th nationwide, decreasing more than $700 in the 2012-2013 school year and $1,000-plus since the cuts first took effect. Texas currently spends $8,400 per student, $3,055 less than the national average and exceeding only Arizona and Nevada.
The association also reported that Texas' average teacher salaries are about $48,100 annually, down $263 from last school year and nearly $8,300 less than the national average.
"We know Texas can do better. Texas has done better and Texas children in their schools deserve better than what they're getting from the Legislature," state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin democrat, told the rally.
Watson was among a group of mostly Democratic state lawmakers in attendance. But one of the speakers was former Education Commissioner Robert Scott, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry and served as the state's top education official for five years, longer than anyone in the past two decades.
Scott stepped down last year shortly after apologizing to school leaders for such deep funding cuts and suggesting that Texas was overemphasizing "high-stakes" standardized testing.
"The real reason I spoke out was I saw the system spinning out of control," Scott said Saturday. A sign held up nearby read "Fire Perry" with the 'F' in red, as if it were a grade.
Many others waved signs reading "Keep Public Funds in Public Schools," a swipe at state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Patrick has called for dramatically expanding charter schools, and offering scholarships that would allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools.
Scott said he used to support such reforms but now dismisses them as a "flea circus" of false promises.
The 2011 cuts prompted more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas' 5 million-plus public school students to sue the state in October. A district judge ruled this month that funding levels now violate the Texas Constitution because they are insufficient and not distributed in an equitable manner to schools in different areas.
State Attorney General Greg Abbott's office has promised to appeal, however, and the case won't likely be decided until next year by the state Supreme Court. If the districts prevail, it will be up to the Legislature to remake the school funding formula — but advocates say lawmakers shouldn't wait to make changes.
"This isn't a partisan issue, this is about our kids," said Jerry Lee Hunkapiller, superintendent of schools in Floresville, about 40 miles southeast of San Antonio. "It's very simple, in Texas, as conservative as we are, we will never, ever forget that our greatest investment is the 5 million children we serve."
Indeed, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers is discussing the possibility of restoring as much as nearly $1 billion to schools without exceeding current state budget spending limits.
"It's good that they are coming together, working together," Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said Saturday. "But the money that they are talking about now is not enough to meet the needs we have."