The Texas legislature has been preparing an all-out assault on public education, pushing a school voucher scam which would on a massive scale take away public funds from public schools and put the money into unaccountable, private, for-profit hands in the name of so-called “choice.” Many schools across the state are feeling the repercussions of the state defunding of schools, the drying up of COVID assistance in conjunction with lower enrollment. There is only one way to understand these attacks: as a full-fledged assault on our right to public education.
Teachers and staff have found the odds stacked against them with low wages, more responsibilities, less planning time for lessons and outright disrespect at their jobs. But at the same time, teachers, families, and communities are fighting back tooth and nail to defend public schools and reverse the decades-long trend toward privatization.
Texas stacks the deck against teachers and public schools
There are two basic parts to the privatization of Texas schools. On the one hand, a faction of the right wing has been pushing the legislature to pass a school voucher bill. This would drain public funds to provide discounts for families to send their kids to private schools. Since these vouchers don’t cover the full cost of most private schools, working-class families would be unable to afford private school anyway, meaning that this would be a handout that overwhelmingly benefits the well-to-do.
The other part of the privatization scheme, which unfortunately has more support among lawmakers, deals with so-called charter schools. While these technically “not private” schools, they are exempt from many of the regulations, accountability, and transparency measures of actual public schools. They aggressively cut corners with the services the provide. For instance, charter schools in Texas are not required to have school nurses, extracurricular activities or the same level of special education programs that public schools have.
Between school voucher programs and charter school incentives, Texas is determined to fund anything but public schools.
Texas is now in its third special legislative session called by Gov. Greg Abbott, which began October 9. Once again, Abbott has forced the legislature to bring up school choice vouchers. This idea is so unpopular that even a majority of right-wing legislators have refused to pass the proposal.
As far back as the 1995 Coalition of Public Schools, rural and urban Texans alike have shown that they value public education. This is not actually a “partisan” issue. But widespread support for public schools hasn’t stopped Abbott and neoliberal school reform advocates from pulling out all the stops to force vouchers down the public’s throats with threats and repeated special sessions. He threatened that, “If we do not win in that first special session, we will have another special special session and we’ll come back again…And then if we don’t win that time, I think it’s time to send this to the voters themselves.”
TEA engineers failure for public schools, makes exceptions for charters
The Texas Education Agency, which is supposed to be the state’s support network for public schools, has instead changed its school scoring system, leading to the failure of schools all across the state. The TEA’s scoring system is so controversial that they are now being sued by over 100 Texas school districts for their arbitrary changes. The actual scores have been delayed as a result.
The harsh standards the TEA has adopted have not been applied to charter schools. In fact, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath routinely carves out exceptions for failing charter schools to continue expanding, despite not meeting academic standards. These double standards put public schools in a position where they can’t win and charter schools in a position where they can’t lose.
In other words, Abbott, the TEA, and Morath are determined to “prove” that public schools fail and charter schools succeed, even when their own metrics show the opposite.
The assault on public schools is also sparking powerful new waves of organizing
Abbott and school privatization advocates are finding that their efforts to destroy public schools are actually uniting communities in defense of these same schools. Parents, teachers, staff, and the community at large are stepping up to fight school takeovers, defunding, and voucher schemes.
Houston is the epicenter of the right wing’s assault against public education. It is also the epicenter of the fight back. On June 1, the TEA seized control of Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas, after a years-long legal battle.
The HISD takeover resulted in the voter-elected school board being replaced by an unelected board of managers who rubber-stamp every decision made by Mike Miles, the TEA’s hand-picked superintendent.
Miles’ reign has seen the gutting of special education services, surveillance of classrooms and obsession with drilling standardized test preparation. Worst of all, Miles has fired librarians in majority Black and Brown schools and converted the libraries into discipline centers for so-called “misbehaving” students.
The community has been fighting back. Students have staged walkouts to protest losing their teachers and librarians. Parents have held rallies across multiple campuses. A local organization called Community Voices for Public Education has been holding meetings and block walks to organize residents.
The Party for Socialism and LiberationL has worked alongside CVPE to share the stories of impacted community members, help families organize demonstrations at their schools and attend bi-weekly board meetings to voice opposition and apply pressure to the unelected board. The struggle has been intensifying. The people have made it clear that they will continue to fight for their children’s right to a quality public education.
In San Antonio, school districts are “solving” their budget shortfalls by trying to close schools en masse. The city is arbitrarily split into many different school districts, and Harlandale, South San Antonio, San Antonio and Edgewood ISDs have all chosen to close schools. San Antonio ISD is obscenely calling this “right-sizing” rather than downsizing. Dozens of schools are currently affected by closures in the coming two years, primarily in the poorest communities. SAISD alone is closing 19 schools.
In the 23 meetings that district is hosting, parents and school staff have expressed their outrage at how quick the decision is being made. Currently, schools that have been marked for closure were slated to receive $179 million in bond money. The community has asked: where is the money going? How will it be used? And why isn’t it used to keep their neighborhood school open?
Some neighborhoods will be left with no public schools,which may result in pushing students to charter schools. This is Abbott’s idea of “school choice”: close public schools and offer families the “choice” to go to charter schools.
People are showing up to all these meetings in large numbers and voicing their opposition to all school closures! The SAISD employees’ union will be holding a rally on October 16 and the board will make their decision on November 13.
In Dallas, teachers and bus drivers have been tirelessly fighting poor working conditions. At school board meetings, bus drivers have told horror stories of the conditions that they work in — both in the buses and in the lots, and the low pay they endure for this grueling work. They have stood together to demand change from the school board.
For teachers, the issues of teacher shortages, the state of students’ well-being and school safety stand out as prominent issues. They have been speaking out against TEI – the district’s “Teacher Excellence Initiative” – evaluation system. This “merit” system allegedly rewards teachers with better pay, but actually worsens pay and morale for most teachers. The district moves the goalposts year after year and bases teacher pay on student test scores and principal evaluations, which are subjective and often have no bearing on reality. The TEI was first concocted under the same Mike Miles who is currently ruling over Houston’s schools.
At a recent school board meeting, the community criticized the board on the hypocrisy of denouncing the takeover of Houston while proceeding with Miles’ decade-old policies. It is clear to people in Dallas that the problem is not just one person: it is the entire system.
Frustration and anger have been brewing in Waco surrounding the TEA’s decision to retroactively change performance ratings for the 2022-23 school year. Waco ISD was one of the first districts to join the lawsuit against Morath and the TEA.
Superintendent Susan Kincannon explained to reporters, “The state has created a system using really complicated methodology to grade schools that doesn’t make sense. That system was changed on us without proper notification according to the Texas Education Code… Our scores have increased and yet our ratings are projected to decrease.”
At a September 21st Waco ISD Board Meeting, Board President Stephanie Korteweg lamented, “Shame on the state for putting this … on our students and their families. It’s disingenuous and, frankly, political. It seems there’s some sort of agenda to break down our public education system. Our kids are working hard. Our teachers are working hard. This seems disingenuous.”
In Austin, PSL has been on the front lines of a campaign to save a local middle school, Manor Middle, from a charter school takeover. The takeover process began quietly in June with little fanfare, as the Manor ISD superintendent essentially bet on the failure of his own campus. Unfortunately, rather than joining the lawsuit against the TEA, the school board is doing the TEA’s dirty work for them by rushing an unprompted takeover.
Teachers, parents, union members, and even a group called Grandparents for Public Schools have joined in meetings by a coalition called Save Manor Middle. The coalition’s major work has been to inform the public about the takeover and the damage that charter schools can do. The community is demanding that the school board not make this incredibly disruptive decision, which would have consequences for the school lasting many years, on this incredibly rushed timetable. The coalition also wants the district to join the lawsuit of over 100 other districts, including neighboring Del Valle ISD, against the TEA.
This is a rapidly unfolding struggle. Updates can be found at the Save Manor Middle Linktree.
We must turn local struggles into a statewide movement
On October 7, hundreds of people from across Texas demonstrated at the Texas State Capitol in defense of public schools. Unions, religious leaders, students, parents, teachers, auxiliary workers, and more spoke out on the importance of public education. Many highlighted that public education is at the heart of democracy and must be protected.
Mainstream media has focused on the fallout of decades of defunding, privatization, and vicious attacks on the right to education. What is missing is that communities are often fighting back as hard as they can. No one is just accepting the fate of public schools. The right to education has been won and defended by people’s movements since the Reconstruction era, and it can be won back by a militant movement.
The money is there to actually fix these problems. Texas recorded a record $33 billion surplus this year. Instead of using this surplus for badly needed public school funding, Texas decided to give half of it back as tax cuts for property owners (with nothing for struggling renters or most poor people).
In the coming period, it will be necessary for the many local movements to defend public schools to grow, network, and formulate bigger demands and more complex strategies. Rather than playing defense against budget cuts and school takeovers, the movement must take to the offense: demanding budget increases and public school openings. Charter schools, which are at their heart a way to re-segregate and privatize schools, need to be brought back under public control, for both the community and the teachers at those schools.
Abbott has gone on the offensive against any mention of racial justice in schools. A pro-education counter-offensive should make no qualms about reversing this, either, by fighting for all the resources it takes to support Black, Latino, indigenous, and other students of oppressed nations. The Texas state government’s racist agenda does not speak for the children and families who reside here!
Fully funded, high-quality public schools that belong to the community, and offer children and teachers the support they need to thrive: this is not a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It can be a reality tomorrow, if we are willing to organize our communities and fight for it!