Friday, August 05, 2005

Rumblings of a Mad Mom Movement

Also check out this related August 6 piece by Clay Robinson in the Houston Chronicle Texas Parent joins the PAC, faces a steep, uphill climb -Angela

Aug. 5, 2005
Rumblings of a Mad Mom Movement

GOP Rep. Carter Casteel
photo by Jana Birchum

The trade show of the state PTA conference at the Convention Center last week offered a wealth of products kids could sell to raise money for their schools. There was candy and cookie dough and pizzas galore, tins of chocolate-covered caramel corn, and enough smelly candles to perfume the entire Texas Capitol with apple blossoms.

Ellen Jones certainly thinks the Capitol could use a breath of fresh air. Standing just outside the trade show, holding a handmade construction paper sign that said, "Are you disappointed with the Texas Legislature? Ask me about Texas Parent PAC," Jones was pitching a fundraising idea of a rather different sort. As one of five founding board members of Texas Parent PAC, she wants to raise $250,000 to replace not band uniforms, but the legislators who shortchange the public schools. "I believe some of the leaders in the Legislature don't have public schools in their hearts," said Jones, who has a short, salt-and-pepper bob and was wearing the unofficial PTA mom uniform of capri pants and sandals in chipper pastel hues. "They haven't felt the power of the parents yet."

Jones is a school board trustee from Euless, a onetime small town north of Dallas that has now been swallowed by the Metroplex. She's also a Republican. As a school board member, she's spent five years in a hands-on struggle with tight school finances, so she's seen how mandates that may seem simple and logical – like the requirement that schools provide graphing calculators for students to use on TAKS tests – squeeze budgets. Worse to her, though, is the fact that the Republican leadership in the House seems to have no interest in civilized debate. "I spent many afternoons streaming the hearings on the Internet, and screaming at my computer," she said. Topping her most-loathed list are most members of the House Public Education Committee, who were "rude and mean" to the people who showed up to testify at the Capitol. "They had their minds made up and truly weren't listening to anyone."

That kind of legislator has to go, says Jones, and she believes there are plenty of Texans in both parties who agree. Those are the parents the PAC is counting on to help meet its ambitious $250,000 fundraising goal, which they'll use to support about 20 candidates, Democrats and moderate Republicans alike. First, they need to get parents on board, however.

As Jones stood in the Convention Center lobby, explaining the PAC idea with the easy confidence of someone used to being in the spotlight, the responses she received varied considerably. Some PTA women seemed skeptical or confused. Many didn't really follow politics, Jones observed, and weren't really sure what a PAC even was. But others responded right away. One woman grabbed Jones' send-your-check envelope immediately. "I looked online to see if there's anything like this out there," she said excitedly. Everyone she knew, she said, is unhappy with what is going on, no matter what party they belong to.

That unhappiness extends to some GOP legislators. In the House, more than a dozen Republicans (out of 87) tended to vote against a leadership that, on education matters, tends to push privatization and vouchers, and makes a priority of tax cuts. Fourteen Republicans, for example, joined Democrats in the vote that effectively killed the leadership's school finance plan, which was opposed by every major education group in the state. One of those reps was Carter Casteel, a New Braunfels Republican who thinks that after three failed attempts to fix the school finance system, the public is finally getting angry enough to make a real difference. "Because of the length of the overall school reform debate, the public is now awake," he said. "They're consistently calling and e-mailing, and they're getting legislators' attention."

For Carolyn Boyle, a Texas Parent PAC board member, Casteel is the kind of Republican she'd be happy to see more of. "You can partly tell they support schools just by the kind of public speeches they make on the floor," Boyle said. "They're impassioned supporters of public schools. They're totally rational. They want to nurture the schools and encourage improvement rather than shaming and blaming them."

On the other hand, there has been some Democratic chatter that suburban moms will finally get so fed up with the school finance drama that they'll trade in their elephants for donkeys. That would be a reverse of what happened throughout the last two decades, when former Democrats stampeded right in droves. Jones, for example, used to vote generally Democratic, but switched parties when she felt the Dems moved too far to her left. Now, she feels that most Republicans in the Lege are well to her right. She has a lot of reasons for remaining Republican, however, and believes that investment in public schools is a cornerstone of a moderate Republican philosophy – the problem being that many Republicans in office are far from moderate.

North Richland Hills Representative Bob Griggs, another Republican with a pro-education reputation, also believes that nothing is more conservative than investing in schools. "We can't lose a generation of Texans who are inept in the skills and tools to make them productive," he said. "I want a new generation of taxpayers to assist with the growth of the economy of the state of Texas."

Casteel points out that the problems facing schools were the same when she was a teacher in the 1960s. Then, it was the Democrats who were in charge, and "they didn't do anything about it, either." Now, she says, her own party is squandering a historic opportunity. "Here as the Republican Party, we have a real chance to do something wonderful for the children of the state of Texas, and we're …" she broke off for a second, as if to choose her words carefully. "We're not there."

Copyright © 2005 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.

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