AUSTIN, Texas – More than 12,000 educators, parents and students marched on the state Capitol on Saturday, hoping to send a message to lawmakers to make public education a priority.

Gathering at the Capitol’s south steps, the rally lasted several hours and featured speakers, student performances and remarks, chants and also words from several parents.

Save Texas Schools organizer and founder Allen Weeks pointed out to the crowd that former state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn had warned Gov. Rick Perry in a May 2006 letter that tax plan legislation he was pushing was “fiscally irresponsible” and “leaves the largest hot check in Texas history.”

“As you have known since it was made public, your plan simply does not pay for itself,” Strayhorn wrote. “As of this moment (May 15, 2006), this legislation is a staggering $23 billion short of the funds needed to pay for the promised property tax cuts over the next five years.”

Strayhorn warned that the structural deficit would either lead to “another huge tax bill” or “at worst, it will relegate Texans to Draconian cuts in critical areas like educ ation and health care for at least a generation.”

“This is not a victory for taxpayers,” Strayhorn warned in her letter. “It is a sham and Texans will see it for what it is.”

On Saturday, the vast majority of signs pointed to Perry as the culprit at the center of the state’s budget woes. The messages ranged from calling him a “liar” to giving the governor an “F” on leadership to attacking his economic development funds – “My son needs teachers, not corporate tax breaks” and “Texas: Open 4 Business. Closed 4 Schools.” The signs also dinged Perry on the current emergency legislation he’s pushed – “Fund schools, not sonograms.”

Even the structural deficit was noted on the rally posters: “2006 – Perry writes a big hot check with tax cuts. 2011 – Education pays … .”

Structural deficit

There’s a $4.3 billion shortfall in the current biennium alone – and just recently, current state Comptroller Susan Combs told the House Appropriations Committee that cuts alone won’t close the gap between revenue and expenses before the year’s close, Aug. 31.

Combs’ predecessor, Strayhorn, had told Perry in her letter that his tax plan, which involved cutting property taxes by one-third, wasn’t bringing in enough revenue from other means as replacement.

“There are only two ways to close a chasm of that magnitude – future tax increases that you are hiding from Texans now or massive cuts in essential state services – like public education – already devastated by your past fiscal indifference,” Strayhorn wrote. “Governor, we should be working to improve state services for Texans and to reduce the burden of government on businesses and individuals. This plan creates a rolling mess that will take 20 years for future leaders of the state to untangle.

“Texans will recognize this plan for what it is – a short-term, smoke-and-mirrors patch at best.”

Weeks noted Strayhorn’s letter predicted a $4.9 billion shortfall in 2010 and another $5 billion shortfall in 2011 related to Perry’s tax plan.

“Texas schoolchildren, parents and teachers didn’t cause the current budget mess and they shouldn’t have to pay for it,” he said.

Public education takes all students

John Kuhn, superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated ISD, gave an impassioned speech that spoke not only to the proposed cut of $10 billion for public education over the next biennium but also emphasized how public education takes all students, no matter their circumstances or issues.

“Send them to us. We will take them. We say, send us your poor. Send us your homeless, the children of your afflicted and your addicted. Send us your kids who don’t speak English. … Send us your special needs children, we will not turn them away,” he said, noting that, with all children taken into public education, teachers face ratings and rankings based upon all of those students’ accomplishments.

“I tell you, public school teacher, you will fail to take the shattered children of poverty and turn them into the polished products of the private school. No, the most damaged public schoolchildren will not turn out as shiny and nice and new as the children whose applications are vetted in a room, whose parents buy them books, nor will you scrub them as clean as those whose parents who keep them bundled in the snug blanket of homeschooling. You will be ‘unacceptable,’ public school teacher, and I say that is your badge of honor,” Kuhn said. “I stand before you today very proudly wearing the label of ‘unacceptable’ because I educate the children they will not educate.

“I, day after day, take these children, broken by the policies adopted by the people in this (Capitol) building, and I glue their pieces back together, and, at the end of my life, you can say, those children were better for having passed through my sphere of influence. I am ‘unacceptable’ and proud of it,” he said, saying public school educators shouldn’t be surprised by “the men and women in this building (the Capitol).”

“They will not take on the label of ‘unacceptable’ because they do not have the courage of a public school teacher,” he said before reading his recent letter to several lawmakers that has since been nicknamed “the Alamo letter” because of its rewriting of Commander William Barret Travis’ plea for help while besieged at the Alamo.

Calls for funding

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke of how he and his brother, state Rep. Joaquin Castro, were educated in public schools before going on to college, becoming attorneys and then public servants and “living out the American dream.”

“I know there are teachers who have students who have the same brains, talents and aspirations,” he said. “The question is, ‘In this legislative session, are we going to say ‘yes’ to their dreams?”

Speaking of San Antonio’s growth and accomplishments, Castro noted that municipality’s dreams “are now hitched more than ever to our ability to have well-trained workers in the future.”

“Brain power is the new currency of success,” he said. “Those countries that create it will succeed. Here in Texas, I wonder how long those Fortune 500 companies will stick around if we can’t produce the students to handle (future job demands)?”

Castor also spoke to the structural deficit created under Perry’s tax plan approved by the Legislature in 2006.

“It’s time for (lawmakers) to undo that deficit,” he said, asking for them to put political differences aside “and rise above it.”

“All of us know that a sound investment in education is the No. 1 way to ensure the future of America,” he said.

Weeks called on those at the rally to continue their efforts in pushing lawmakers for a solution to the funding crisis and to use the Rainy Day Fund. He asked them to talk with others, so more people can become aware of what’s at stake.

“Parents, we need to remind the governor and the legislators that they’re not in charge of our kids’ education, we are. And we say ‘no’ to cuts,” he said. “We’ll remember those that mess with our kids’ education. Those that don’t stand with us are against education. Those that vote against us, we’ll meet you at the ballot box.

“Your power is in your vote,” Weeks said, saying every parent should be contacting his or her legislators to “come back home and talk on the issues.”

“Tell them to come back and talk to you face to face and ask them, ‘What are you going to do to fix the structural deficit?’ ”

Weeks urged people to continue checking in at the Save Texas Schools website, www.savetxschools.org, for updates and information.

People at the rally

Austin ISD parent Margie Medrano told the Daily Light that while she’s worried, she appreciates state Rep. Jim Pitts, who serves as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and state Comptroller Susan Combs for their efforts to address the funding crisis and budget shortfall.

“We need people with courage in our government,” Medrano said. “Combs has said we need revenue – and Perry is fighting her.

“Chairman Pitts is the one that’s leading the effort to use the Rainy Day Fund,” she said. “He’s my hero and we need more people like him. We need our leaders to sit down and talk about how to fix the structural deficit that was created in 2006.”

Medrano said her school has already lost its zero-hour classes, which were utilized by students “who wanted to do more with their education.”

“That’s gone,” she said. “And now, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Dallas ISD magnet school teacher Linda James said her district plans to cut the Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts by 47 percent of its faculty.

“Superintendent Mike Hinojosa said the magnet schools are a luxury we may no longer be able to afford,” she said, noting, however, that DISD’s magnet schools have been recognized nationally for their student achievements. “We can’t support excellence, is what our superintendent is telling us.

“This will take away kids’ dreams and aspirations,” she said, pointing out that 98.5 percent of DISD’s magnet school students go on to college.

Another Austin ISD parent, Cynthia Valadez, brought her 19-year-old daughter, who has special needs, to the rally.

“We’re here because our district has decided to cut 1,100 jobs for teachers and teacher assistants, those that provide direct services to our children,” Valadez said, talking about how such cuts would impact her daughter, a junior. “We don’t want Rick Perry and this Legislature to turn their backs on our children and (the staff) that supports them. We want him to make education a priority in our state. What we don’t appreciate is our school district and our school superintendent being blamed for the economic problems.

“We need the governor to understand that Texas ranks in the bottom five of education quality and it appears as if he’s racing to the bottom,” Valadez said, noting that the pending state budget cuts also affect her daughter, who receives services via Medicaid.

“My family is getting hit from all sides. Medicaid is the only reason she can live at home. I tell you, I would rather be in the streets than institutionalize her,” Valadez said with tears in her eyes. “The ones who are being hit the hardest are the ones who can take it the least. That’s the tragedy of all of this.”

Several dozen educators and parents from Ellis County ISDs also made the trip to Austin for the rally, including Waxahachie ISD veteran teacher Kim Kriegel.

“Finally, Texas teachers are going to make their voices heard,” Kriegel said. “It’s time for Texas teachers to get politically active and pay attention.”

Contact JoAnn at joann@wninews.com or 469-517-1452.