AUSTIN (AP) — Thousands of teachers, students and parents flocked to the Texas Capitol on Saturday to protest a proposal to cut $10 billion in state education spending, which they say will force widespread teacher layoffs and ruin public schools.
The protesters formed a procession stretching seven blocks and marched through the state government campus to the south steps of the Capitol while local band students beat drums. It was one of the largest grassroots gatherings at the Capitol in recent years, although it fell far short of the 10,000 people organizers had hoped would show up. Department of Public Safety troopers estimated the crowd at less than 5,000.
Texas is facing a revenue shortfall that could reach $27 billion when counting population growth and higher costs. The hole was caused by the recession and a new business tax that has not raised as much money as projected. Independent experts have estimated as many as a third of Texas school teachers could lose their jobs if lawmakers adopt the budget Republicans put forward with the support of Gov. Rick Perry. The shortfall also will affect other aspects of state government, everything from building highways to maintaining the state parks.
Many of Saturday's protesters focused their anger on Perry, who has rejected any proposal to raise state revenues and has tried to slow efforts to tap the $9.4 billion expected to be in the state's Rainy Day Fund.
Marcus Jauregue, 24, a choir teacher from Irving, held up a massive report card giving the conservative Republican straight F's and shouting: "Show your face Rick Perry."
Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said in an e-mail that the governor had listened to taxpayers and "they want their government to be leaner and more efficient."
"We will continue working with lawmakers throughout this session to identify ways to reduce spending while continuing to provide essential services to Texans," she said.
Marla Camp, an Austin mother who was with her 6-year-old daughter, said she was offended by comments Perry made Wednesday, when he said layoffs were decided by local school boards, not state lawmakers, and suggested schools could do a better job of reducing administrative bloat.
"That's like him saying 'I put the bullet in the Ruger and I shot the coyote, but it was the bullet that killed the coyote, not me,"' she said, referring to Perry's shooting of a coyote while running near his house last year. "It's a complete lack of responsibility."
The "Save Texas Schools" rally followed smaller protests at local school board meetings. Teachers and parents quickly traced the proposed cuts back to lawmakers trying to balance the state budget. Many of Saturday's protesters carried umbrellas to signify the need to tap the Rainy Day Fund.
Protesters also asked Perry to sign paperwork that will allow schools to receive about $830 million set aside by Congress for Texas schools. The money has gotten caught up in political maneuvering with Washington, and Perry has refused to sign the application that he says has too many strings attached.
Kerry Parks, a special education teacher from Round Rock, said proposed funding cuts to his program that helps special needs children would reverse years of progress in integrating those students into regular classes. He too was upset by Perry's comments.
"Every time he makes these comments, it makes us work harder," he said.
Jesus Mejia, 16, a junior in El Paso's Bowie High School, made the 12-hour drive from El Paso with about a dozen classmates and a teacher. He said education was too important not to participate.
More school rallies are scheduled at the Capitol next week, which is spring break for many schools in Texas.