Education advocates rally outside Texas House

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by SOMMER INGRAM

Associated Press

Posted on May 21, 2011 at 6:59 PM

Updated Saturday, May 21 at 7:24 PM

AUSTIN (AP) — A loud group of parents, teachers and education advocates rallied outside the House chamber in the Texas Capitol to protest a state budget that will cut $4 billion from education, warning lawmakers who supported the cuts that they will vote them out in November.

The protest Saturday came on the heels of a budget agreement negotiators announced Friday that educators say will devastate public schools and likely result in massive state layoffs.

The House, made up of mostly fiscal conservatives, has been urged by Gov. Rick Perry not to use the state's Rainy Day Fund. Teachers and parents are outraged that lawmakers would threaten children's education and lay off teachers instead of using more of the fund. They held signs reading "We will remember in November," "Cuts Hurt Kids" and "WTF: Where's the Funding?"

Legislators have been dealing with a multibillion dollar revenue shortfall that Republican lawmakers vowed not to make up by raising taxes. House and Senate negotiators had been deadlocked over how much to cut from education, but eventually agreed to go with the Senate's proposal to cut $4 billion. The bare-bones budget proposed by the House would have cut close to $8 billion from public schools.

"At this point, the Senate version is what we were looking for," said Don Bos, a school librarian. "We'll be happy on some levels with this, but things are still going down the tracks in the wrong way."

The message Saturday was intended to be loud and clear to members of both chambers: Texans will remember the lawmakers that voted to cripple public education and vote them out in November.

"We've got to find a set of legislators who believe in kids," said Allen Weeks, chair of Save Texas Schools, the group that organized the rally. "We will find pro-education legislators to replace these others."

The small, rowdy group sang a song with the lyrics, "If you vote against our children, let there be no doubt. The eyes of Texas are upon you, and we will vote you out."

The crowd cheered as Democratic lawmakers who opposed education cuts walked out of both chambers. The group shook hands with the legislators and thanked them for fighting for Texas children.

"This may be a win for budget negotiators, but it's a loss for Texas," said Rep. Mike Villarreal, a Democrat who has fought loudly against budget cuts. "If the members of this Legislature fail to prioritize the real values of Texas ... then we will make today's legislators the legislators of yesterday."

But when Republicans emerged, chants of "use the Rainy Day Fund" grew louder and louder.

"Take a good luck at public education, because it will be forever diminished when politicians finish with their butchery," said John Kuhn, superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District.

He said lawmakers shouldn't cut education in a state that already ranks 44th in education spending per pupil.

"Welcome to the bottom," Kuhn said.

Rodger Isom, grandfather of a toddler with Down syndrome, said the early childhood intervention program that helped his grandson is being cut.

"These cuts are to human beings," Isom tearfully told the crowd. "There are consequences, not just in voting, but in how people grow up. I don't know how many more sacrifices these people think we need to make."

Much of the anger has been directed toward Perry throughout the legislative session. Educators say he claimed education wouldn't have to be cut to deal with the shortfall.

"Yet this is the same governor that refuses to use billions of dollars sitting on the table for the taking in the Rainy Day Fund," Weeks said. "This isn't about filling a deficit. It's about reducing the level of education in our state."

Parents and educators acknowledge that time is running out for them to make a difference, with less than two weeks left in the session. But they planned to stay outside the House chamber through the afternoon Saturday and not let lawmakers forget their vow for November.

"These legislators sell our children down the river," said Kery Balanza, an Austin parent. "But we will wait until it is time and vote them out."

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