PTA Mom Marches on Austin – A Tale of Two Education Rallies

By Kim Burkett, PTA Mom

Student rallyOn Saturday my family and I gave up our usual weekend routine of pee wee basketball games and swim lessons to march on Austin as part of the Save Texas Schools rally in support of public education. Many of my fellow PTA moms even prolonged their Texas PTA Rally Day at the Capitol stay to attend the rally on Saturday, which focused on restoring funding cuts to public schools and ending the standardized testing madness. Interestingly there were dueling education events at the capitol that morning. On the other side of the capitol building there was a school choice event going on as well.

The differences between the Save Texas Schools rally and school choice event were profoundly striking, painting a distinct picture of the differing viewpoints and attitudes these groups have toward public education and Texas students. While the Save Texas Schools rally drew thousands of participants (parents, students, educators, and community members) from all over the state, the school choice event drew somewhere around 30 folks – mostly lobbyists and their followers pleading their case for yet another voucher scheme to a handful of gathered media.

The school choice event was attended by long-time lobbyists and D.C. insiders like Peggy Venable of the Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and her fellow voucher-pushing pals from Texas AFP’s “Red Apple project.” Members of Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (on-again, off-again registered lobbyists and lackeys funded by West Texas oil money) were there as well. Attendees also included paid employees of Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), the conservative think tank with the stated mission to “promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas.” (Always remember that free enterprise is part of their mission, but nowhere does it say they’re committed to what’s best for Texas families and their children. That pro-business bent is important to keep in mind as you hear their message of “school choice” and opinions of public education.) There were even a few lobbyists who had recently moved from Washington, D.C., leaving their employment at Freedom Works (a Tea Party-associated conservative group with very close ties to D.C. lobbyists) behind to join the astro-turf efforts to push vouchers into Texas’ school system.

While these groups that have long pushed their own anti-public education agendas, encouraged cuts to public education (despite the fact that education is one of the most pressing concerns facing Texans according to recent polling), and promoted propaganda against public education using questionable statistics met in the shadows of the capitol’s north steps, the pro-public education rally met on the sunny side of the capitol’s south steps. I stood on those south steps with parents and children. I stood with educators (retired and active) and concerned citizens. I listened to high school bands and performers. I learned about the importance of public education in a community and what happens when the state ignores its constitutional responsibility to public schools.

Some of the business suit-clad school choice lobbyists apparently made their way to the other side of the capitol building to visit the Save Texas Schools rally. While they had the opportunity to hear business people, religious leaders, superintendents, politicians, educators, school board members, and community members talk about the importance of public education, the need to restore the $5.4 billion needlessly cut during the last legislative session, and the impact Texas’ testing frenzy has had on students and schools, the school choice lobbyists didn’t seem to be listening. Based upon their social media barrage, the lobbyists only walked away with amazement that the socialist party was there!

Rather than contrasting the merits of their plan with those of public education proponents, the lobbyists were busy tweeting photos and faux outrage that members of the socialist political party attended the public rally. Yes, they were there. So were some members of the Occupy movement, Move On, LULAC, and various professional educator organizations (lobbyists like to call them “unions,” even though they’re well aware that Texas is a right-to-work state where educators can’t bargain or strike). What the lobbyists don’t seem to understand is when you have a real, legitimate grass-roots community rally, you’re likely to get diverse members of the entire community in attendance (rather than just a bunch of policy wonks, lobbyists, and their paid henchmen). And sometimes those community members just might include groups that lobbyists find “sensational” enough to use as shiny distractors from the real message.

Since they failed to mention it, though, let me tell you about the groups that the lobbyists didn’t tweet pictures of. The groups I saw as I marched through downtown to the capitol included church groups, veteran groups, college students, PTA members, moms pushing strollers, elderly ladies pushing walkers, families, and students waving Texas flags. I saw artist groups concerned about cuts to fine arts programs. I saw educators representing ISDs from across the state concerned about over-crowded classrooms and teaching to the test. I saw superintendents wondering how they’ll make it through another budget cycle reeling from cuts, unfunded growth, and increased standards and requirements.

These are the groups the lobbyists should have seen and heard. If they had only been paying attention, they would have heard that Texas didn’t fund enrollment growth in 2011, leaving new students (all 160,000 of them) unfunded for the first time in modern history. They would have heard that Texas has fallen to #49 nationally in per student funding – an embarrassing statistic for a state that boasts such a strong economic miracle. They would have heard that education is sometimes the only answer for those trying to escape poverty (and 25% of Texas children live in poverty). They would have heard that taking money from the public school system that is required by the state constitution is not the answer to fixing public education. They also would have heard that our schools are not “failing,” but run the very real risk of doing so if they continue to be defunded, ignored, and undermined by corporate interests.

It’s such a shame that the lobbyists weren’t listening. Instead, they were busy pushing the same tired voucher scheme (now re-branded to a term that must poll better, “taxpayer scholarships.” Who doesn’t like a scholarship, right?). The same old scheme that Texas and many other states have refused time and time again. The same voucher scheme that has never shown real proven results (other than to the bottom line of private interests and corporations), although it’s been kicking around since the 1990s. The same voucher scheme that claims to be aimed at low socio-economic kids who need a better opportunity, but only subsidizes a portion of the tuition leaving the family to pick up a tab they can’t afford. The scheme that chooses funneling taxpayer dollars to private entities rather than fixing the public education system in place that they claim to be broken.

This brand of “education reform” they’re peddling is the type of corporate-driven reform that has brought us the testing cash cow that pays United Kingdom-based Pearson a half a billion of Texas taxpayer dollars. Despite their supposed roles as taxpayer watch dogs and claims of fiscal conservatism, they were pushing for unaccountable uses of Texans’ tax dollars and more tax breaks for business. This isn’t about broken schools or low socio-economic students. Just follow the money – and the lobbyists.

So on Saturday I chose to attend the rally of the real families, educators, and students rather than the contrived gathering of the lobbyists and their paid employees. I marched behind my kindergarten son and two high school students with bright futures. I marched behind them, and mostly importantly, I marched for them. I marched for those kids because they deserve better than what Texas has provided them. I marched for those kids because they are owed the same level and quality of education that I received so many years ago. I marched for the kids the state chose to ignore when they defunded education last session. I marched for the kids who have seen sports programs defunded, bussing halted, and who sit on the floors and counter tops of overcrowded classrooms. I marched for all of the kids who deserve a strong education and the opportunities that will afford them. Unlike the astro-turf school choice event, I know exactly who I rallied for on the steps of the capitol. And I did so proudly.

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