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Teachers stage last-ditch rally over school cuts

By Paul J. Weber

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 4 2011 3:45 p.m. MDT

Protesters against cuts in funding for Texas public schools rally in the rotunda in the state capitol, Saturday, June 4, 2011, in Austin, Texas. Teachers are rallying at the Capitol as a bill to slash $4 billion for Texas public schools inched closer to passage during the special legislative session.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — State Sen. Wendy Davis, revered by teachers for filibustering a bill that would create a $4 billion shortfall for Texas public schools, led educators Saturday in a small rally at the Capitol even though many of them conceded the measure now appears headed for approval.

About 100 teachers surrounded the Fort Worth Democrat for a short protest before marching to a House appropriations meeting, where the Republican-led committee approved a larger budget bill that includes the plan slashing the state's obligations to school districts.

"I would rather not have this hitchhiker on this bill, but it's here," said Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, the committee chairman, referring to the school finance portion of the measure.

Protestors didn't arrive at the meeting until moments after it ended. Nonetheless, the crowd packed the hallway outside the door, loudly chanting "We're here! Where are you?" as some lawmakers continued milling around.

"Our children were not made a priority in the building," said Davis, whose filibuster last weekend pushed the school finance bill to a special legislative session. "And we will change the face of the people that represent us."

Groups of teachers who have protested at the Capitol all spring mostly have become resigned to the GOP-controlled Legislature passing the bill in the special session. Opponents are now setting their sights on the 2012 elections, when they hope to punish lawmakers who backed the school finance overhaul.

The Senate passed the bill Friday, and the full House is expected to take it up early next week. The measure is needed to balance the state budget, but Democrats have resisted the cuts while lawmakers sit on nearly $10 billion in the state's reserve fund.

The schools bill is essentially the same one that Davis killed on the final night of the regular session, but Democrats have almost no way to stop its passage now.

It changes distribution formulas for public schools to let the state give schools less money than they receive under the current law. It spreads the $4 billion cut over two years — with 6 percent across-the-board cuts in 2012 and $2 billion in targeted reductions in 2013.

Republicans say the cuts are needed to avoid raising taxes, and the bill makes the best of a bad situation

"This is a compromise bill, guys. It is truly a compromise," Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock said before the committee vote. "Do I love it? Not particularly. Do I hate it? Not particularly. But it's truly a compromise."

Davis became an overnight celebrity for her 11th-hour filibuster, though some have questioned whether the maneuver might cost Democrats by putting contentious issues such as immigration back in play during the special session.

Davis called that speculation "silly" and said there was an interest in trying to place blame.

"I don't think we were going to get away with a free summer. We were going to come back here one way or the other," Davis said. "And I'm proud that one of the reasons we're back here is to talk about education funding."

As many as 8,000 people protested the school funding cuts at the Capitol during the regular session. Organizers had hoped for a July special session that might have attracted similarly sized protests, thanks to teachers being out of school, but Gov. Rick Perry ordered the special session to begin a day after the regular one ended earlier this week.

Saturday's small rally had its share of first-timers. Tina Wyatt, a sixth grade teacher in Abilene, and her daughter drove from West Texas for their first chance to protest since school was finally out for the summer.

"It becomes more about the next election, so that legislators know we're watching," Wyatt said. "And what will happen now, when people realize what has happened to our education system, the public will become outraged."

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