Last year, during the biennial legislative session, Texas House Republicans approved a budget with a crippling $10 billion in cuts to public schools over the next two years—this despite warnings from educators that the results would be catastrophic. Several state senators fought to make the cuts only harmful rather than damning. In the end, Texas public schools lost $5.4 billion in the two-year budget, an unprecedented cut that's left districts and classrooms struggling to provide basic services. More than 10,000 teaching positions have been cut, and over 8,000 elementary schools have applied for waivers to go over the state's class-size cap, almost 6,000 more than last year according to the AP.
Tuesday's Texas primaries beg the question: Will any incumbents pay?
Texas educators haven't traditionally been a politically hard-line group. It's a conservative state, but since the current funding system went into place after World War II, there've been no deep cuts to education. Texas has hardly made life difficult for teachers—until last legislative session, educators had a variety of job protections through state laws. Of the four state teachers groups, two don't affiliate with any union efforts.
But this time around, the push to get teachers energized and voting is clear. With most districts being solidly Democrat or Republican, the primaries are the key battle, particularly for ousting the Tea Party legislators who pushed the drastic cuts. At a rally in March, teachers turned out to protest. At TexasISD.Com, a digital meeting place for involved parents and teachers alike, the updates have been largely election-related, including pleas to readers to go out and vote in the primary elections. The site even offered readers a list of candidates with an education background. Parent PAC, a pro-education campaign group, has endorsed only one Republican incumbent in the House races, instead pushing hard to bring in more moderate GOP candidates who don't see education dollars as wasteful spending.
There are plenty of races bearing on the issue. 29 new candidates for state House have education backgrounds, according to the AP, and several of the competitive primaries center around education issues. In the fight for state House District 96, state Representative Bill Zedler, a far-right conservative, has faced a tough challenge from school district police chief Mike Leyman, who has endorsements from the United Educators Association and the Texas State Teachers Association. “There’s no greater responsibility for any parent or for any legislator than making certain our next generation gets the best possible education,” Leyman told the Texas Tribune. Leyman also said he would spend his time in office pushing the state to spend more on education. In North Texas, a former school board member has sought to make school funding a bigger issue in her bid for an open seat, while a pastor challenging Tea Party incumbent Ken Paxton has fought similarly to get education higher on his party's priority list.
To keep up with all the race, the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) has even launched a new site, TeachTheVote.com to give voters a better sense of candidates' records on public education. "After this last cycle," explains ATPE spokesman Monty Exter, "our board got together and said 'We have got to do more. We want you guys to make an impact in the next election because of everything that has just happened in education.'" The entire site defends public education as a non-partisan, public good. "It's time for every Texan to understand what educators have long known," it reads. "Our choices at the polls become realities in the classroom." From class-size limits to testing, vouchers to funding, the site covers the major education issues for parents and teachers alike, and offers a searchable database of all candidates for the state House, Senate and Board of Education.
This struggle, largely between different sects of Republicans, has hardly made its way into the statewide fights. In the race for U.S. Senate, both Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz have based their appeals on being the most conservative option. Cruz has specifically criticized Dewhurst because while the Senate proposed vast cuts to state services, they were not as deep as the potentially crippling budget the House initially examined.
But by the end of day Tuesday, we may well see which narrative has left state voters more concerned—the rhetoric around tax-cutting and small budgets or the costs of education cuts borne by schoolchildren.