PTA Mom Stunned: Texas Children Run Laps for Curriculum, State Representative Unmoved

By PTA Mom

I should be asleep. It’s 5 a.m. on a Saturday and I’m wide awake. My week has been full with visits to the pediatrician, solving the mystery of the lost library book, nearly missing my deadline for the PTA newsletter, and helping my son make an insect with appropriate anatomical pieces out of play-doh.  I’m tired; so why am I awake before dawn on a Saturday morning? Because yesterday I witnessed the most shocking display of willful ignorance and callous disinterest that I think I’ve ever seen, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Yesterday began with a fun run fundraiser at my kindergarten son’s elementary school, one of the many fundraising and giving opportunities presented to us by the school this year. If you haven’t been a part of this before (or been hit up for pledge money), here’s how it works: the children collect pledges from their family and friends in support of their run.  For every lap the kids run, for instance, Grandma donates $1. The kids win various chotskies based upon the number of pledges they collect and the money goes to benefit the cause. My son absolutely loved it, and my guess is the other children did too. Especially nice is the school selected a fundraiser that encourages fitness instead of leaving me with a refrigerator full of cookie dough!

I remember fundraisers when I was a kid – they were often used to support a school dance, maybe buy a trophy case, or perhaps to replace aging sports equipment. What was my son’s school raising money for? My son’s fundraiser wasn’t for a cool trip to Disney World. It wasn’t even to purchase uniforms for the basketball club. Instead my child and his schoolmates were raising funds so their school can purchase curriculum materials and technology. Yep, my five-year-old just ran 48 laps for curriculum.

When this fundraiser was announced I was dismayed, but not surprised. I’m well aware of the plight Texas school districts face after $5.4 billion in funding cuts last year. My son’s school of more than 900 students has eight kindergarten classes and seven first grade classes. All of those kindergarteners and first graders were not funded by the state in 2011. Due to faulty revenue projections by the state comptroller, the Texas legislature did not fund enrollment growth for the first time in the state’s modern history.  So our school is running with probably more than one third of its students un-funded by the state.

The result – my neighborhood school only has library books for half of its population (which is why solving the mystery of the lost library book was so critical this week!). I’ve watched the PTA give money to the school to support a writing curriculum in the past. They’ve been working all year to purchase new technology. I know they’re struggling and I appreciate their tenacity in searching for every way possible to get the resources our kids need. I wish they didn’t have to work that hard to purchase something as fundamental as materials for curriculum, but kudos to the school for keeping up the fight.

So, what does a PTA Mom do when her child runs laps for curriculum? She takes her son – wearing his fun run t-shirt – to her state representative’s town hall meeting, of course! Representative Giovanni Capriglione (HD-98) happened to hold a town hall meeting on the same day as the fun run. I wanted to speak with Representative Capriglione about restoring last session’s budget cuts to education. While the state of Texas has a budget surplus right now, in addition to a rainy day fund that’s expected to hit $12 billion by the next biennium, the drafted budget under consideration in the legislature only restores about half of the funding to public education.

The meeting was held in the idyllic Town Hall in Southlake, Texas. It’s a, beautiful place – very much like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting or perhaps the movie Pleasantville. The hall was standing room only – something incredibly commendable for a Friday evening political meeting. Many in the audience identified themselves as members of local tea party organizations. Capriglione was well supported by these conservative groups during his election in 2012 and they were proud to make their presence known.

I waited my turn while the crowd celebrated Representative Capriglione’s legislative efforts for various important problems I didn’t know we faced, like bringing home Texas’ gold reserves  and ensuring college students take comprehensive American or Texas history classes rather than other more specialized history courses . (By the way, that legislation is pretty controversial and many say akin to a radical Arizona law. It will be protested by many groups that feel it will micromanage universities and limit student access to historical studies of women and ethnic groups. State Representative Capriglione’s response to the would-be protestors? “Whatever. Bring it.”)

When it was my turn I introduced my son and explained to my representative that he attended kindergarten in district 98. My son, sadly a veteran of town hall and other political meetings, sat uninterested playing Brain Pop on an iPad. I pointed to his fun run t-shirt where teachers had marked off each of the 48 laps he ran that day. I asked Representative Capriglione why he would support a budget that didn’t fully restore education funding when there are children like mine running laps to purchase curriculum. I reminded Capriglione that the state has a budget surplus and growing rainy day fund. I also reminded him that a bipartisan poll last month indicated 79% of Texans (including 61% of Republican primary voters like many of those sitting in that meeting room) supported fully restoring funding. I concluded by asking why he wouldn’t support public education?

While Capriglione has represented himself in the past as someone that supports public education (his children attend Texas public schools and he has been active in his local education foundation), his response was fairly typical for somebody more concerned in protecting the rating on their tea party report card than supporting the needs of Texans. He admitted that Texas was in a strong financial position with unexpected revenue. Then came the laundry list of excuses:

  • He talked to me about the fact that the state faces a $5 billion Medicaid bill. He failed to mention it was left over from last session because of the “balanced” budget shenanigans and smoke and mirrors of his legislative predecessors.
  • He talked to me about the constitutional spending cap limit. He failed to mention that the limit was selected by his conservative legislative colleagues and represented one of the most restrictive spending limits available to them, even though they knew of the previously-mentioned Medicaid bill and underfunding of education.
  • He talked about the consequences of busting the cap. He didn’t mention that can be done with a simple vote.
  • He talked about the dangers of using the rainy day fund – last tapped to support education in 2007. He failed to mention that tapping the rainy day fund can be accomplished with a two-thirds or possibly three-fifths majority vote and will likely be done to fund water projects and/or infrastructure, as suggested by Governor Perry.

What he also failed to mention was that each of these excuses were legislative-made and solvable for those with the political will to do so. And, frankly, these self-imposed impediments are not the problem of Texas children. They should be solved by the grown-ups that created them instead of punishing students. The Representative quickly thanked me for my question before I could follow-up to tell him that he hadn’t answered it. (Many in the crowd approached me after the meeting to point out his non-answer as well.)

At the end of his monologue citing all of the debatable fiscal reasons why he supported continuing the defunding of Texas public education, he was applauded by the members of the local tea party organizations. They applauded the fact that my child and 160,000 other Texas children were left unfunded by needless cuts. They applauded the fact that my representative had absolutely no desire nor will to do anything about it. They applauded the fact that my child ran laps for curriculum materials today.  I sat down next to my five-year-old with the realization that I was one of the few people in that room that gave a damn about his education. I will never forget that moment. I shook my head in disbelief. Representative Capriglione quickly moved on to other topics from the crowd like defeating Obamacare’s state exchanges and preventing “illegals” from accessing resources. It was surreal.

Although shell shocked by the crowd’s lack of empathy for Texas public school children, the most striking part of Capriglione’s message was not lost on me. In his rambling thoughts about spending limits, revenue projections, and rainy day funds he never mentioned the words “children” or “education.” Not once. Those words didn’t pass his lips. How does a person “answer” a question about public education without mentioning public education? Or students? It was incredibly telling.

Representative Capriglione didn’t glance at the unfunded child sitting next to me. He wouldn’t look at him. One of the hundreds of thousands of children the state of Texas chose to ignore in its funding of public education in 2011 was again ignored – this time by our state representative standing in the same room. I guess it’s difficult to look at the young faces of those you sacrifice for political gain.

He didn’t mention the fun run t-shirt my son sported proudly. The t-shirt that to me represents something sick and perverse – where we accept the fact that our schools are forced to hold their hands out to the community like Dickensian beggars to scrape together enough pennies to buy something as basic as materials for curriculum.  Something that should be easily paid for by school funds – if we actually funded our schools.

In their abandonment of public schools, politicians apparently now find it acceptable that our children run laps to raise money for their curriculum. When did this become acceptable? Is this the new normal? Where is the outrage?

For those who hadn’t realized it before, this simple exchange at a town hall meeting exemplifies that for many politicians the battle over public education has absolutely nothing to do with children – and this battle rages nationwide. Sure, some Texas politicians have been known to cry crocodile tears for the “poor children,” but they put on that performance as they continue to defund their public schools, force privatized, corporate-driven reform measures upon them, and kowtow to the testing-for-dollars industry. Texas children have been sold out and ignored. My child was sold out and ignored. Representative Capriglione’s own children were sold out and ignored.

And the tea party applauded.

So, given the realization that politicians like Capriglione will put fiscal excuses before the needs of children; given the fact that the politics of local tea party extremism trump the needs of Texas’ future workforce; given the fact that it is now considered de rigueur for five-year-olds to run for curriculum, what does a PTA Mom do?

She dusts herself off and vows to fight harder.

She fights for the children the state ignores, won’t acknowledge, and disregards. She gives up calling her legislators every other week, and instead speed dials them weekly moving forward. She reminds her neighbors that it’s inappropriate for children to run for curriculum and lets them know only their angry voices will stop it. She helps other PTA Moms and Dads and Grandparents and community supporters cut through the rhetoric and excuses disingenuous politicians present.

And she hugs her son tight on the way home and tells him that she’ll continue to fight every day for his education. Because unlike politicians, PTA Moms are in it for the children.

And then she wakes up at 5 a.m. the next day and begins the fight again.

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