At a rally at the Capitol on Saturday, public education advocates accused lawmakers of strangling public schools with out-of-control high-stakes testing and funding cuts.
"There are 5 million kids in Texas waiting for this legislature to keep our forefather's promises," said John Kuhn, the superintendent of Perrin Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, in North Texas. "And to those who want to take away that promise, I'm with the moms and the trustees and local business people who will say what brave Texans have said before, come and take it. Just try to kill that promise of our Constitution."
Educators, parents and students gathered at the event organized by Save Texas Schools, a statewide coalition formed during the 2011 legislative session to fight funding cuts. According to the group's crowd count, about 3,500 people attended.
While 2011 might have been the Alamo for Texas public schools, said Kuhn, whose rural district of about 400 students is located northwest of Fort Worth, "this year is our San Jacinto."
Several lawmakers attended the rally, including Sen. Kirk Watson and Reps. Elliott Naishtat, Mark Strama, Lon Burnam and Donna Howard. Rep. James White, from Hillister, was the lone Republican.
"The verdict is in, and it says the Texas school system is inadequate, unfair and isn't even constitutional," said Watson, referring a district court judge's recent ruling in a lawsuit brought by school districts against the state.
Instead of moving restore funding in light of that decision now, he said, "the Legislature is sitting around like a litigious deadbeat dad waiting from a ruling from a higher court."
Many speakers — including Diane Ravitch, a Houston native and former assistant secretary of education to President George H.W. Bush who is now an outspoken opponent of vouchers and high-stakes testing — called out Senate Education Committee chairman Dan Patrick by name.
The Houston Republican has made creating a scholarship program for students to attend private schools a priority during the ongoing legislative session. He also has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 2, that would dramatically expand the state's charter school system.
Among Ravitch's concerns was the senator's attempt to pass a "parent trigger" law in which local school boards could vote to convert to a charter school. It would more aptly be called a "parent tricker" law, she said.
She urged members of the crowd to support efforts to roll back student testing in the state. "The testing vampire started here," she said, referring to the Texas origins of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. "Kill it."
Former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott also spoke at the rally. Scott, who stepped down from the agency in July, made national headlines last year when he told an annual gathering of 3,000 public school administrators that the state's testing and accountability system had gone too far.
On Saturday, he said the state's $90-million-a-year test-development contract was influencing the "totatilty" of public schools.
"Now, some of you may look at that and see that as the tail wagging the dog a little bit, wouldn't you? I don't," he said. "I look at it as the flea at the end of the tail of the dog trying to wag the dog."
He said that realization was part of his decision last year to speak out against the direction of state education policy.
"I had to turn in my reformer card because I looked at it as a flea circus," he said. "They are selling two ideas and two ideas only: No. 1, your schools are failing, and No. 2, if you give us billions of dollars, we can convince you [of] the first thing we just told you."
Prior to the rally, a handful of school choice advocates gathered on the north steps of the Capitol at a media conference organized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank.
They emphasized the need for a scholarship program that would give public school students to the option to attend private schools of their choice, saying that such a program would provide competition that would improve public schools and also give parents the ability to choose the best educational choice for their children.
"They are advocating for more money, but they always do, they always will, and the focus needs to be on the student and the education they're getting, and this is what we're talking about — giving parents choices to be sure that they can send their children to schools where they'll be educated," said Talmadge Heflin, a former state lawmaker who is the director of the TPPF's Center for Fiscal Policy.
In addition to TPPF officials, attendees included Peggy Venable, the president of the Texas branch of Americans for Prosperity, and representatives from Americans for Tax Reform and Texans For Fiscal Responsibility.