At risk of losing their jobs to state budget cuts, public school teachers from across Texas are preparing to gather en masse this weekend at the state Capitol to tell lawmakers they're not going down without a fight.
Proposals to deal with a massive state revenue shortfall have hit schools the hardest, prompting layoff notifications and school closures across the state. More than 10,000 teachers, parents and students are expected to converge Saturday on the Capitol's front lawn, demanding that the Legislature tap a multibillion-dollar reserve account to fully fund public schools.
"It just goes to show how important this issue is ... across all party lines in Texas," said Hilary Whitfield, a rally organizer. "It's amazing to see so many people leave that kind of (partisan) mindset and rally around the fact that all children in Texas need a strong foundation and that comes from a strong education system."
Inside the Capitol, lawmakers are moving closer to the next two-year state budget. That spending plan that will be crafted with about $27 billion less than they used in the current budget, once population growth and cost increases are counted. Initial proposals would spend almost $10 billion less on schools than required by law.
The chief budget writer in the House, Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, is hoping he can convince his colleagues to use at least $4.3 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to help soften the blow. But he's fighting a wave of fiscal conservative opposition from freshman Republicans in the House and from Gov. Rick Perry, who said Wednesday that rallying teachers are misplacing their ire.
"The lieutenant governor, the speaker and their colleagues are not going to hire or fire one teacher, as best as I can tell," Perry said, when asked what he would say to those rallying in Austin Saturday. Decisions to reduce teaching forces, he said, are made at the school district level and suggested schools could do a better job of reducing administrative bloat.
"Over the course of the last decade, we have seen a rather extraordinary amount of non-classroom employees added to school programs," he said. "Are the administrators and school boards going to make the decisions to reduce those or are they going to make the decision to reduce the number of teachers in the classroom? I certainly know where I would point. I think the non-teaching corps would be the first place I would look if there are going to be reductions."
The Rainy Day Fund, made up of deposits from oil and gas taxes, is expected to have more than $9 billion by the end of the next budget period.
The rally will start just east of the Capitol, with a march toward the building. Several speakers -- including a mayor, students, and a superintendent -- are expected to address the crowd.
Rally participants are also asking that Perry sign the 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.
"It would really help in a time like this," Whitfield said. "In the end, it's money we need and there's no reason there shouldn't be a signature on that piece of paper by now."