Sunday, March 25, 2012
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
March 24, 2012
Sherry Dana's reason for joining a rally protesting cuts in public education spending was summed up by a quote from the Italian poet Dante on a cloth bag slung over her shoulder:
"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."
As far as the retired Austin teacher is concerned, this is no time for neutrality.
"We want kids to be educated," she said. "It makes this a better country."
Leaders of the Save Texas Schools coalition said more than 4,500 teachers, administrators, students and parents from across the state participated in Saturday's rally at the Capitol and march leading up to it. Capitol police estimated the turnout at 1,000. Either way, the crowd was energetic and peaceful under mostly blue, sunny skies.
A coalition rally last spring drew thousands more because of heightened interest during one of the Legislature's regular sessions, which take place in odd-numbered years. But the Republican-led Legislature, grappling with a gaping budget hole, wasn't dissuaded from reducing by $4 billion the amount owed to school districts in the two-year budget.
Lawmakers sliced an additional $1.3 billion from grant programs, including full-day pre-kindergarten and help for students struggling to pass high-stakes standardized tests.
Speakers and attendees at Saturday's rally said the way to turn things around is by voting out the budget-cutters. They stopped short of endorsements but occasionally criticized Republicans in general and GOP Gov. Rick Perry in particular.
"Cutting school funds is a Perry bad idea," read one sign.
The cuts have forced many school districts, including Austin's, to trim payrolls. Statewide, districts have 25,286 fewer employees this year than last year, including 10,717 fewer teachers, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
Hundreds of districts have sued the state, challenging the constitutionality of the school finance system.
The Save Texas Schools coalition wants lawmakers to restore funding and limit what it considers excessive standardized testing. The coalition also wants funding restored for higher education, which saw a reduction of nearly $1 billion.
"We just have to get them to do the right thing," said Carolyn Bruton, a librarian in San Antonio. "The right thing is to make sure each child has an equal education with the right funding."
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said it's important to send a message "to those in control of the state" that many middle-class people believe "Texas can do better."
One of those in control, the governor, told the American-Statesman last month that the state is spending plenty on public education. "The issue is, are we spending enough money in the right places? Are we getting a good return on our investment?" Perry said.
Proponents of limited government spending said Texas should stay in belt-tightened mode.
"I'm confident that further cuts can be made without adversely affecting student performance or without adversely impacting students or teachers," said Peggy Venable, Texas director of Americans for Prosperity.