It Takes an Election

Last year, Save Texas Schools held a rally that wowed most of us covering it. Around 10,000 people came from across the state, traveling hours on buses to demand lawmakers prioritize education funding, and forego the unprecedented cuts the legislature's initial budget had proposed. In a state with little history of organization and few structures for bringing people together, the rally was an impressive success. 

But here's the thing: Even with the public outcry, lawmakers went ahead and slashed education funding anyway.

So perhaps it's not a surprise that this year's rally only had about 1,000 attendees at its height (though organizers say a total of 4,500 people came through at one point or another). Toward the end, the numbers seemed to be in the low hundreds. The speakers each had a different pet cause or complaint—testing, funding, equity—and the overall program ran about 30 minutes longer than it was supposed to. Over at The Texas Observer, I left the program thinking the event was a failure. Then I called Allen Weeks, the mild-mannered organizer of Save Texas Schools. Weeks told me I was looking at the whole thing wrong. "These are just things to get people focused, to get the media focused," he said. He believes the real change will happen because of small gatherings around the state involving a few hundred people or fewer, in which concerned citizens come together to discuss education policy—and then mobilize voters.

Last year, he says, "we had so little effect other than energizing people," he said. Rallies, it seems, aren't enough. 

"We're educating and we're giving people hope that someone out there is after this," he said. "Someone is remaining hopeful."

This isn't just the way things work in Texas. Few state bills get killed based on public outcry; even after Virginia's pre-abortion sonogram proposal sparked a national campaign, the legislature still passed it (albeit, in altered form). Similarly, massive protests in Wisconsin in support of collective-bargaining rights didn't stop Governor Scott Walker's anti-union law from passing. This does not mean that protests are unimportant—it's that they serve a different purpose than we think they do.

Despite the decrease in turnout, the Save Texas School rally did make news, and few stories got into the actual numbers in attendance. Rather, the rally helped to bring the feelings of anxiety and frustration occurring in school districts around the state into the public discourse. Texas education is a particularly bleak tale. Lawmakers not only cut $5.4 billion from public education, they also failed to address the serious inequities in the funding system. The state has seen thousands of teacher layoffs, and some frightening tales (The impressive Morgan Smith even discovered a district in which custodial staff was fired and teachers must also work as janitors around their schools). In the meantime, the state is implementing a new battery of tests this year that have many teachers terrified, and some all but calling for rebellion. 

To be successful, the Save Texas School effort will have to mobilize the pockets of disaffected teachers and parents who could vote out those who refuse to raise revenue in the state or tap the state's Rainy Day fund for schools. Regardless of party, if candidates begin to see dissatisfaction around the issue, they may be able to counter the pressure from conservative groups demanding more and more cuts and scaring GOP lawmakers who don't tow the line. The organization is holding conferences around the state and regional chapters seem active in their own push to get people worked up. Additionally, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, among the more moderate of the four teachers' groups, is developing a site to highlight lawmakers' education records. Redistricting lawsuits delayed the information for state House and Senate members but an ATPE spokesman said that information will be up in the next few weeks. 

Rallies used to be about specific issues. But with pressure of lobbying groups, by the time bills are offered during the legislative sessions, it's often too late to actually effect change. Activists' only shot comes during elections—and rallies are important only in so far as they shape the narrative. In this case, the Save Texas School rally got what wanted: more media stories showing people care about the cuts. "Even in states where you have big rallies, that's not what changes things," says Weeks. Rather it's "street-by-street organizing, vote by vote, organizing people [to get] motivated and fight."

Which, it seems to me, make rallies more of a luxury than a necessity in a lot of cases. After all, if you're not going to get attendance beyond the hardcore activists who are already committed to the cause, wouldn't those dollars be better spent on more direct education or outreach? And there is the danger that low turnout could demoralize or get you media attention you'd rather avoid. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, the importance of rallies is certainly up for debate.

Weeks said he was ultimately pleased with the recent rally, but he didn't promise to make it an annual event.  "if we have a rally next year," he said, "we'll do it because it's got some strategic benefit."

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