On Tuesday evening, I flew to Texas to keep a promise to myself. Three years ago, I was chosen for the annual award of the Friends of Texas Public Schools. The day I was supposed to fly to Austin, there was a huge blizzard in New York City and my flight was canceled. All flights were canceled the next day as well. I Skyped into the event the next evening, and a few weeks later received a beautiful large wooden plaque with my name on it. But I never felt I earned it because I wasn’t physically there. So, I arranged to meet with them again this week. The gods of the air decided not to make it easy, so there was a huge rainstorm, delaying my flight for four hours, and I arrived at 2:30 am the day before I spoke.
This is the talk I gave, no notes, just an informal conversation. I am sorry to say it is posted on Facebook so if you are not on FB, you can’t hear it. I can’t hear it myself as I am not on FB.
After I spoke, I participated in a panel where I learned very encouraging news. I sat with three members of the Texas House of Representatives, two of whom are Republicans. All of them understand the importance of public schools, and all are opposed to vouchers.
To my right was Representative Dan Huberty, the chair of the House Education Committee. He is a Republican from Humble, Texas, near Houston. He recently told the news media that voucher legislation would be “dead on arrival” if it passed the Senate. The Tea Party has put a target on his back, and when he runs again, I will do everything in my power to support him because he is a principled supporter of public education. He announced during the panel discussion that his committee had approved a new appropriation of $1.6 billion for public schools (in 2011, the legislature cut more than $5 billion from public schools and never restored the cuts when the economy revived).
Next was Representative Diego Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio. He is charming, smart, and a strong supporter of public schools.
Last to speak was Representative Gary VanDeaver from New Boston, who was a career educator and a superintendent in his community. He has said that he supports school choice in principle, but does not support public money being taken away from public schools to fund private schools, faith-based schools, or homeschooling.
On Thursday, the state senate passed the voucher bill, which will take money from public schools that educate all children and give it to parents for private or religious schooling or homeschooling, with no accountability. The bill passed 18-13. Here is the statement on the bill by our steadfast ally, Pastors for Texas Children.
The usual opposition to vouchers comes from a bipartisan coalition of rural Republicans, who understand the importance of their community public schools, and urban Democrats, who don’t want their schools to be privatized or defunded. The day I arrived, the Senate sponsors of vouchers added an amendment to exclude any district from the voucher legislation with fewer than 50,000 students, to win votes from rural legislators. Experience in other states shows that once a voucher bill is passed, the exemptions drop away and eventually every school district will be starving its public schools, even rural districts.
The bill that passed exempted counties with fewer than 285,000 people, to fool the rural legislators. It excludes homeschoolers. It has no accountability for students with vouchers, so public money will fly out the window with no one knowing how it is spent.
I learned that there is big money promoting vouchers, namely a group called Empower Texans, an organization created by billionaire Tim Dunn to push for lower taxes, less governments, school choice, and the usual Tea Party platform of less for all. Empower Texans has a PAC that endorses local and state candidates, including school board candidates. Anyone who opposes their agenda has to worry about a well-funded primary fight from their right. Empower Texans, to say the least, does not support public education.
Texas has two great forces working on behalf of public schools: one is parent-led organizations like Friends, TAMSA (Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment), Texas Kids Can’t Wait, and many more. The other force is the Pastors for Texas Children, a group of more than 1,000 pastors across the state who support separation of church and state and who actively help their local public schools.
The Facebook page of FOTPS has a photo of Blake Cooper, a recently retired superintendent who now works as a volunteer for Friend of Texas Public Schools, and FOTPS founders Leslie and Scott Milder. Leslie taught high school for 10 years; their children attend public schools.
I had a great time. I even had great barbecue for lunch.
I have great hopes for Texas public schools because it has many organizations of parents and teachers who will fight for what is right, and it has strong bipartisan support in the House. Ninety percent of the children in the state attend public schools. In the 2018 elections, if parents and educators turn out to vote, the face of Texas could change, and it could do right by its 5.4 million students in public schools.