Texas Kids Can’t Wait by Bonnie A. Lesley

Texas Kids Can’t Wait  by Bonnie A. Lesley

When we were working on the Money Does Matter publication for the Equity Center two years ago, we called for political action at the local level to influence legislators’ votes in the 2011 session. Some groups were formed, but, for the most part, they operated quietly in the background since probably no one could imagine at that time that Texas would enact one of the most austere school funding bills in the nation.

Now we know for sure that grassroots action is critically important! After the 2011 session, no one is in doubt. No amount of information provided at the state level has the leverage with legislators that grassroots organizations have. It takes both! After all, we still do have a democratic form of government, and it always works best when we at local levels educate, organize, register voters, donate money to campaigns, influence policy advocacy during primaries and the general elections, apply pressure, and hold our representatives accountable for the results we want to see.

We have seen several organizations formed since state leaders did their dirty deeds of abandoning their responsibilities for Texas children. Save Our Schools has successfully rallied large numbers of people for state-wide protests, and we are reading of locally organized groups who are influencing the state’s conversation about school funding. We have been grateful as well for the out-front leadership provided by superintendents. Importantly, we are seeing more and more publications, such as daily newspapers like the Waco Tribune-Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, news magazines like The Texas Observer, and online publications like The Texas Tribune paying attention to the gross and unconstitutional disparities that exist in school funding and in taxpayer rates—and the costs to kids.

But much more must occur! We can win the litigation that we are involved in, but if we do not have well-organized, informed citizens in every legislative district, we will emerge again from the legislative sessions with such nightmares as “target hold harmless revenue,” weighted-student formulas that underestimate need, unequalized “enrichment” funding, and continued denial of the detrimental effects of poverty on children’s learning, health, and social behavior.

So. What to do? A few Waco friends and I decided to organize and to organize smart! We remembered Margaret Mead’s wisdom: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Texas isn’t the world, but it sometimes seems like it since it is so big.

We decided to launch our organization, Texas Kids Can’t Wait, with a state-wide education campaign about how schools are funded, who gets what and how, and why money matters in ensuring kids’ opportunities to learn. Our name connotes the urgency that we feel.

In the years that it will take to correct the legislation coming out of the Orange Cove decision, this current biennium of austerity, and the subsequent years to litigate, appeal, and then get a decent bill out of the legislature, a whole generation of kids will have spent their K-12 years in an underfunded, unfair, and unconstitutional system. People in Waco are in shock at this time with the cuts that occurred this year in numbers of teachers, resulting in larger class sizes; in fewer instructional materials; in abandoned programs; and in dreams deferred. Just this past month the Board of Education voted to close NINE of our schools, and some of them are among Waco’s highest performing schools.

Our “Did You Know?” campaign reflects my experience when I was doing the research for Money Does Matter. I used every opportunity with family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and people I had just met to ask the following:
“Did you know that the lowest funded district in Texas gets $10,000 less per kid than the highest funded district?”
“Did you know that if Waco were allotted even the state’s average WADA that we would have received $11,000,000 more dollars in one year?”
“Did you know that Fort Worth ISD receives $114,000,000 fewer dollars per year than Austin ISD with similarly sized enrollments?”
“Did you know that Texas educates 10% of the nation’s children?”
“Did you know that Hispanic school children in Texas are 22% of all the Hispanic school children in the United States?”
“Did you know that there is a direct and positive correlation in percent of Texas kids passing all TAKS tests and the funding level of their schools?”
“Did you know that there is a direct and positive correlation in the dropout rate and the funding level of schools?”
“Did you know that a Schott Foundation study found that Texas ranks 43rd among the states in disadvantaged kids’ opportunity to learn? According to the study, Texas’s negligence in this area costs us $6.8 billion annually in lost earnings of dropouts, losses in costs of health care, crime-related costs, and reduction in taxes paid.”
“Did you know that Texas ranks 33rd among the states in average teacher salaries?”
“Did you know that Texas ranks 49th in the amount of per-student spending on education?”

In every single case, including conversations with educators, people did NOT know these facts, and they were outraged that they didn’t know. Goal 1, therefore, is to make sure people know. We want to stir up that outrage and then channel it into positive action on behalf of children.

Our first planned steps include the following:

Focus. For now, we anticipate that our major focus will be school finance. Depending upon the ideas of our members, we may want to expand our agenda to include other issues, such as the issue of the growing movement toward total privatization of education (home schools, charters, vouchers, parent triggers, virtual schools, education savings accounts, etc.), which we see as a major threat to democracy as well as being extremely detrimental to kids. This issue is closely related to school finance. We are also concerned about the maniacal emphasis on assessments for accountability, rather than an emphasis on continuous progress monitoring to improve learning. These issues will resonate with people. A front-page story in the Waco Tribune-Herald recently told the story of a family so opposed to STAAR that they kept their children home on test days and refused to allow them to take make-up tests. Letters to the editor so far have been supportive of their decision.

Ensure Diversity. We feel strongly that we must build an organization that is inclusive. We will be political, but we will be multi-partisan. We know that polls indicate strong support for public education and adequate/equitable funding among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. We will include African American, Hispanic, and other minorities in our community, as well as Whites in our leadership. We will reach out to retired members of our community and to high school and college students. Our members will come from all walks of life.

Media. We have created our webpage so that we can invite people to join and to participate in our activities. We will provide critical information to the public about our objectives, our activities, and event details. We will also post links to information about Waco ISD and other districts in the county and across the state, general information sources about education issues, newspaper articles across the state, studies, etc. We also plan to produce a YouTube video series. Follow us on Twitter @txkidscantwait. Email us at texaskidscantwait@gmail.com.

“Did You Know?” Campaign. We will conduct School Funding 101 sessions for our members, for people not yet members across the state, and for citizen groups (clubs, organizations, churches, etc.). We will provide people access via our website to the information at the Equity Center, the Texas Association of School Boards, the Texas Association of School Administrators, the Texas Education Agency, and other organizations.

Outreach. We will begin immediately to start talking with leaders in the 20 school districts in McLennan County and in the school districts in our state legislative districts. They will be invited to join us or to start groups in their own districts. We will start with people we personally know and with organizations that we know will be supportive: PTA, retired teachers, teachers’ associations, student leadership organizations, Waco’s Education Alliance, Avance, NAACP, LULAC, school program advisory committees, business leaders, people at Waco’s three colleges, religious leaders, and so on. We need to become big in order to influence legislators and candidates.

We also want to be affiliated with groups existing elsewhere across the state so that we can all join hands in strategies for success and in sharing information and resources. We will be available to lend our support to groups wishing to organize in other Texas communities.

Organization. When the time is right, we will formally organize. We will need officers, dues (but minimal), bylaws, a bank account, etc. We will be happy to share with other groups what we learn along the way. If we decide to raise funds to support candidates, we will need to form a PAC (political action committee). We have also discussed looking into a 501(c)3 and/or 501(c)4 organizational structure. Wonderful volunteers are helping with this work.

Activities. We are planning a voter registration drive, helping people get voter IDs, attending county and state political party conventions, conducting candidate forums, and teaching our members how to make their voices heard. In order to influence how school board members, Texas School Board of Education, and legislators think and vote, we know we have to participate politically—in both parties.

The Future. All of us recognize that we are in this for the long haul. It will take a long time to secure adequate/equitable funding for Texas schools, and it will take a long time to repair the damage to kids’ lives, to the education profession, and to sound education policy and practice. We also recognize that nothing ever stays “fixed” permanently. We cannot again let down our guard. We must be vigilant in our oversight of policymakers, and we must hold them accountable for their decisions. The $5.4 Billion in cuts in 2011-13 to the education of Texas children cannot be forgotten.

Texas Kids Can’t Wait! is a rallying cry for Waco and across the state. Superintendents and school board members are not necessarily the ones who should do the organizing themselves and be the faces of the reforms we seek. You can, however, in the background, encourage “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” to do so—and, together, we can change our state so that people “don’t mess with Texas” again! Do it now!

[Dr. Lesley is the author of Money Does Matter: Investing in Texas Children and Our Future and Money Still Matters—for Our Children and for the Future of the Great State of Texas. She taught 17 years, and she served as an administrator in five urban school districts and one state department of education. She has served as an adjunct professor in curriculum at five universities. She can be reached via email at balesley@aol.com or texaskidscantwait@gmail.com or by calling 254-848-4483.

Linda Ethridge, co-founder of Texas Kids Can’t Wait, has been a classroom teacher, a member and president of the Waco ISD school board, a member of Waco’s City Council, and mayor for two terms. She can be reached via email at lethridge@hot.rr.com or by calling 254-776-9949.]

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