By the time you read this, the Texas House of Representatives will have voted on and likely passed the state budget which severely cuts the funds for public education.  This will, of course, have significant repercussions not only for those who work in our schools, but it will negatively impact the state over the long-term.

We entrust our children to our schools and teachers for 8 hours a day.  Those schools, from Kindergarten through high school, will now have fewer teachers, fewer support personnel, fewer services for children with special needs, fewer services for gifted and talented children, and larger classes.  All of these are, according to educational research and common sense, predictors of a diminished learning environment and poorer student performance.  We as a state are being blatantly hypocritical when we wring our hands in concern about bullying and school safety, and then remove many of the people and structures that contribute to making our campuses emotionally and physically secure.

The state already spends more than $90,000,000 each year on the TAKS, the test that drives the curriculum, adds stress to teachers’ jobs (not to mention what it does to students), and supplants all possibilities for imaginative, creative, and student-centered teaching.  Now the legislature is choosing to increase the demands and the complications of teachers’ already demanding jobs by removing many of the supports that are now in place.  Discontinuing the TAKS and putting those resources into empowering our professional specialists (teachers) and school districts to enrich the curriculum and sharpen assessment would take care of a host of financial and educational problems to the tune of almost a half-billion dollars over the next 5 years.

It takes little thought to recognize that poorer education of our children has long-term consequences for our state and nation in every area, from individual earning power to national security.  We are hobbling one area that we should be doing everything we can to strengthen.

The financial wealth of a nation or a state can be shown in a variety of conspicuous ways.  Military might is also demonstrable.  But the character of a nation or a state is seen in its response to the citizens who are most vulnerable:  children, the elderly, the sick, homeless, dispossessed, and others who have little or no voice in the system.  “As you do to the least of these…”

The state legislature’s responses to the budget crisis is to focus cuts (and blame, adding insult to injury) on individuals and groups that would likely fall in the category of “the least of these.”

Can we expect our government to focus on spiritual principles and social justice in their deliberations?  Probably not.  The legislature’s actions are not surprising.  Disappointing, painful to some, and damaging to all in the long-term, but not surprising.  Ours is a capitalist society, a republic with democratic elections funded heavily by a few who expect to be compensated for their influence.  Whether that’s good or bad seems irrelevant.  It simply is.  Spiritual principles and social justice come further down the line of considerations.

Like other institutions, the legislature is primarily self-serving.  They have to stay in business.  That’s true of every institution; businesses, churches, service groups, any such organization.  School districts are trying to keep their system intact as well.  In this case, the legislature holds the purse strings, so they choose which values to operate by, and consequently, which groups get the severest budgets cut.

While our teachers do not have the option of collective bargaining, they, the parents, the children, and others who are concerned about these short-sighted fixes to long-term problems do have the power of collective action.  And collective action for “the least of these” is a demonstration of a moral character far greater than any legislative action.

Printed in the Abilene Reporter News, Sunday, April 3, 2011