Texas Lawmakers Beware: The American Federation of Teachers is Coming for You

Last spring on the steps of the State Capitol, it was possible to buy a highly metaphorical cupcake, one that would cost you just $100 million. The "Billion Dollar Bake Sale" was put together by an outfit called Save Texas Schools, and it was meant to draw attention to the $5.4 billion Texas lawmakers slashed from the state's biennial education budget in 2011. To make that money back, you'd have to sell 54 cupcakes at $100 million each. Or one cupcake, studded liberally with diamonds and topped with a tuft of Donald Trump's cotton candy-ish hair.

Those budget cuts have now resulted in six separate lawsuits filed against the state of Texas by various school districts . And the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers' union with more than a million members nationwide, is going on the offensive.

"We'll be aggressively lobbying at the legislature," Louis Malfaro Texas AFT's secretary-treasurer, told us last night. "Last year, there were 4,000 teachers and school employees at the State Capitol. We have to get people energized again about these issues."

Texas AFT is holding a series of meetings around the state with teachers, parents and school administrators, to gauge just what they should be lobbying those lawmakers about. One of the first of those meetings happened last night at a Marriott in DeSoto, and turned out about 20 very frustrated people, mainly teachers from a few southern Dallas County school districts, including Lancaster, DeSoto, and Duncanville.

Malfaro asked the teachers if their districts were "adequately funded." They responded with raucuous, rather bitter laughter. They also had complaints about too much standardized testing, outdated computers, and class sizes that keep spiraling ever upwards. And there was a good deal of conversation about how little Texas spends per pupil (around $8,900 these days, well below the national average of $11,463 ).

AFT isn't just holding meetings; the union has also quietly added dozens of new organizers around the state to recruit new teachers. In the Metroplex alone, there are now 15 organizers. Last year at this time, there was one. "It's a concerted expansion," Malfaro said.

Teachers' unions like AFT see Texas a battleground state. "Texas has been a real trendsetter in education," Malfaro said. "Some of it has actually been positive. In the 1990s, we were one of the earliest states to raise standard for teachers." But lately the trend is headed in the opposite direction, he said: "We've been living for 10 years with a decreasing commitment to the funding of public schools, and we're starting to reap the negatives." AFT is also alarmed by the rapid growth of charter schools and "virtual education companies" in the state, both of which they see as a threat to public school funding.

But none of it compared to the funding cuts during the last legislative session, he said. "We've had 25,000 jobs lost. The grant program that paid for full-day pre-K has been nearly zeroed out. Higher education has lost money too. You've gotta hand it to Rick Perry. The guy's got chutzpah." (The contempt is mutual, we're sure.)

Texas AFT will be holding their meeting with DISD parents and teachers on November 12; location information is available here.