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Are Texas Schools Paying The Price Of Rick Perry's Presidential Ambitions?

A leading Republican presidential candidate, Perry boasts about a “Texas miracle” with the economy. A trip to the state finds some strident Democratic critics of his education policy, which they say is victim of his presidential campaign's boasts

Rick Perry (Gage Skidmore)
Rick Perry (Gage Skidmore)
Corine Lesnes

FORT WORTH – At age 14, Senator Wendy Davis was selling fruit juice at a local mall. At 19, she was a single mother living in a trailer park, a collection of caravans reserved for the poor. She escaped these circumstances through the public school system. At a community college, she was allowed to catch up on the high school she had missed. The system worked so well that years later, she was admitted to the prestigious Harvard Law School.

Since then, Davis has been a staunch defender of public schools. In late May, she became a heroine among local Democrats when she single-handedly blocked the passage of the Finance Act, which would have cut $4.5 billion from education spending. Her maneuver forced Texas Governor Rick Perry to call a special session of the state Legislature. Although the plan was eventually voted in, Wendy Davis has not since given up. "Texas Miracle? It's a joke," she said. "We are ranked 47th out of 50 states with respect to public education spending. And we have the largest population of adults who don't have a high school diploma!"

Among the savings proposed by Governor Perry to reduce the Texas deficit by $27 billion, cuts in education elicited the strongest public reaction. Some 30,000 people took to the streets of the state capital, Austin, in one of the largest demonstrations in recent memory. At the "Save Texas Schools' conference held in Fort Worth in late September, local school district officials shared their distress. "We have prepared a survival plan," said Gene Buinger, Superintendent of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, who, with a budget of $150 million for 21,000 students, has already cut $8 million -- and needs to cut an additional $12 million before the next school year.

Before dismissing teachers, schools have first taken to laying off educational assistants and security guards. Clean up and maintenance is now only done every other day – by the teachers themselves. "We only have two librarians for the whole the district," said Dan Powell, another school official. "And we can't even guarantee one nurse per school."

A return to segregation?

Newly vacated teacher positions remain empty, while the school system admits 80,000 new students each year due to population growth. Exceptions to a 1984 law that prohibits classes bigger than 22 students have now become standard. "Last year we gave six exemptions. This year, 98," said Buinger, whose HEB School District is near Fort Worth.

Buinger gives the example of text books. Since desegregation, he says, the constitutions of southern states require that they must provide textbooks to ensure equality in education. This year, Republicans have decided that, instead of providing the books, they will send money to schools. Schools are now free to buy e-books instead. "The result? They took the opportunity to reduce funding by 47%."

The Democrats are convinced that education has suffered at the cost of Rick Perry's presidential election campaign. "He refused to take any emergency funds, even though there are $6.5 billion still available," fumes Senator Davis. "That way, he can boast of having balanced the state budget." The Left even suspects that some conservatives are trying to dismantle public education. The proof? A 2006 law that reduced local taxes by a third and prohibits any increase without consulting the voters. But with schools largely funded by local taxes, and the population on the rise, the school system is condemned to sink into an even greater deficit.

"They do not want to pay for black and Latino children," said Allen Weeks, founder of Save Texas Schools. "They are trying to reduce the size of government," explains Gene Buinger. "What they want is to give credits to the middle class in order to reduce the costs of private schools."

The Superintendent John Kuhn is moved when he speaks of his mission: "You can reduce our salaries. We'll still be here! Send us your children with disabilities, your homeless kids, your children who do not speak English! We will continue to teach. I do not want to participate in the system of segregation that we are creating here in America."

Senator Wendy Davis, 48, now faces retaliation by her opponents. Her district has been gerrymandered by Republicans who control the redistricting based on the 2010 census. Blacks and Latinos have been lumped in with middle-class suburbs. Regardless, she has maintained her conviction. Some already see her as a prime candidate for the governor's office.

Read more from Le Monde in French

photo - Gage Skidmore

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