On Friday, January 30, 2015, my family and I went to Austin and back for the Texas School Choice Week Rally (earlier post), part of National School Choice Week (January 25-31, 2015). It was fun and meaningful to be part of such a big group for a cause that we care a lot about. Here are some notes from the experience.
7:30 a.m. We parked near downtown San Antonio. Organizers from Families Empowered and the Brackenridge Foundation had tables set up with coffee, breakfast, box lunches, and tote bags with information packets. We boarded one of the two buses going from San Antonio to Austin for the rally.
8:00 a.m. The buses left for Austin. A friend with a clipboard checked to see who was on the bus to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind in Austin. F.T., my seven-year-old son, was excited to recognize classmates from Great Hearts Monte Vista. My dad came with us, and my five-year-old daughter, G.N., wanted to sit next to him. My friend S. had jumped at the chance to take this trip with her son, a fourth grader at Great Hearts Monte Vista, because he’s been interested in politics for years.
I stood up in the aisle and tried to speak above the sounds of the bus and the road. As an icebreaker, I asked all the adults to introduce themselves. Families from Great Hearts Monte Vista, BASIS San Antonio, and BASIS San Antonio North were on our bus. There were also folks from Harmony and Americans for Prosperity–Texas. The second bus had families from KIPP San Antonio, IDEA Public Schools, Brooks Academy, and more, as well as homeschooling families.
As the families introduced themselves, they talked about why school choice matters to them. As a parent, it’s such a good feeling to find the right school for our kids.
We talked about the plan for the day: marching in the rally in the morning, and visiting legislators’ offices in the afternoon. We had a deep discussion about school choice issues, focusing on a set of five points from the Texas Charter Parent Teacher Alliance:
- Charter schools are public schools, too.
- Charter schools receive less funding per student than schools in traditional ISDs.
- There are 105,000 students on charter school waiting lists.
- Charter schools should get access to unused public school facilities.
- Closing a charter school should be done only as a last resort.
The kids were listening just as carefully as the adults.
We also made plans for what to say in the legislators’ offices. It’s a good idea to have one person be the spokesperson to start the discussion and to make a graceful exit. If the staff members asks a question, the spokesperson can coordinate an answer, instead of having all of the visitors try to answer at once. If no one has an answer on the spot, the spokesperson can say, “I don’t know, but we’ll find out and get back to you within a couple of days.”
9:45 a.m. The buses paused along the east side of the Texas State Capitol for us to disembark. Staff members from Families Empowered helped us get our yellow School Choice Week scarves and signs, and to gather for the march. Our group from Great Hearts Monte Vista was just behind a large group from IDEA Public Schools.
10:00 a.m. The marching band struck up a tune. We started walking across the capitol grounds, south towards 11th and Congress, then back up towards the south steps of the capitol. The organizers said that there were 2,500 people in attendance. The crowd got fired up doing the official School Choice Week dance.
Senator Donna Campbell (campaign site) led a rousing call-and-response:
When I say, “school,” you say “choice!”
No child should be trapped in a chronically underperforming school.
She called on parents to make change happen.
Land Commissioner George P. Bush (campaign site) continued the family tradition of support for school choice.
Let’s improve our schools, let’s give parents and students a choice.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (campaign site) could not attend the rally, but organizer Randan Steinhauser thanked him for his steadfast support of school choice.
The list of speakers included students, parents, and school leaders; they represented public schools, virtual schools, charter schools, and private schools. The marching band and the dance team kept the crowd excited. We made plenty of noise that could be heard inside the capitol.
K., a member of my online community, found my family and me standing off to the side of the rally. Her kids, like mine, find crowds a little overstimulating, and needed some room to run around and roll on the grass. In spite of the sensory overload, K. and her family were proud to be part of the rally.
11:05 a.m. After the rally, we went inside the capitol for a rest break, to warm up, and to eat our box lunches. G.N. was impressed by the capitol building:
It has a big dome with a statue on top.
During our lunch break, fellow parent-activist Matt Prewett from Texas Parents Union found us, and F.T. took a picture of us.
Matt has an online community and shares interesting links. Matt lives in Austin and regularly submits testimony to the Senate Committee on Education and the House Committee on Public Education.
12:00 p.m. We met up with some of our friends from Great Hearts Monte Vista, and they helped us find our gathering point to plan the afternoon meetings with legislative staff.
Before the rally, the organizers had looked up our home addresses and grouped us by district. (Find your senator and representative: “Who Represents Me?”)
My family and I live in the districts of Senator Campbell and Speaker Joe Straus (campaign site). I was assigned to the group to visit Speaker Straus’s office. Our group included BASIS families, as well as families with kids at both BASIS and Great Hearts. We set off for our 1 p.m. appointment.
12:30 p.m. Our group went exploring around the capitol. On the second floor, we found the House chambers and the speaker’s offices. The speaker’s staff offices are on the first floor, so we took an elevator down.
1:00 p.m. We met with Andrea Sheridan, the senior education advisor to the Speaker. Sheridan commented that there were so many of us, she was not sure we would all fit in her office. (We did. Barely.)
Rachel Allred, a mom with kids at both BASIS San Antonio North and Great Hearts Monte Vista, spoke for our group. In addition to the five key points mentioned above, she talked about the need for a BASIS Primary school in San Antonio in 2015; read more in this earlier post.
Sheridan said that she had seen lots of yellow scarves around the capitol all day, and had heard the sounds of the rally from inside her office. She wanted to know where we were from in San Antonio; our group had members who live in Northside ISD, North East ISD, and Alamo Heights ISD.
Sheridan pointed out that both public school and charter school groups have been asking for more money, and that although the Speaker’s draft budget does set aside more money for education, it does not specify yet how much will go to charter schools and how much to traditional ISDs.
I spoke briefly about charter school waiting lists (earlier post): even though a new campus, Great Hearts Northern Oaks, will open in August 2015, the waiting lists are still getting longer.
Sheridan shared some business cards with us. Her email address is Andrea.Sheridan@Speaker.state.tx.us and her phone number is 512-463-0921.
And that was it.
1:20 p.m. We wandered down to the rotunda to play tourist for a while. We had saved some cookies from our box lunches, so the kids and I ate those, and sipped on some bottled water.
My friend S. was carrying a shopping bag with souvenirs from the capitol gift shop. She said that her son, a fourth grader at Great Hearts Monte Vista, had been the spokesman for their group while visiting a staff member for a representative from San Antonio’s West Side. S’s son brought up all five points from our policy discussion on the bus, and delivered a conclusion that connected all the points.
A mom from KIPP Un Mundo introduced herself to me—she follows this blog and recognized me from the picture on my About page. She is the leader of the parent organization for her school, which serves grades K-2 in 2014-15. We are going to keep in touch: one of my goals is to build stronger connections among the parent organizations at charter schools in San Antonio.
1:40 p.m. We exited the east doors of the capitol and burned off some energy running around on the grass.
While waiting for our bus, I talked to L., a cheerful, outgoing high school student from Cornerstone Christian Schools. L. and her friends, dressed in letter jackets and plaid, were about to get back on their bus to San Antonio, too. It’s a great thing that School Choice Week is broad enough to include all types of schools, and homeschooling.
2:00 p.m. My friend checked her list and made sure everyone was back on the bus. Then, the bus drove away from the capitol and back to San Antonio. We shared stories from our experiences of visiting different offices, and then settled in to rest.
The trip made a big impression on the kids who went. My kids have been talking about it all weekend. K.’s son drew a picture of the capitol and knew lots of facts about it.
Going to the Texas School Choice Rally was a great experience for my family and our friends. It felt good to do something out-of-the-ordinary to support our school. My kids got to see government in action. I learned more about how to be an advocate, and I can apply those lessons in the future. Families Empowered and the Brackenridge Foundation did an amazing job on the logistics, making the trip fun and easy for us.
Read more about the rally:
- “Thousands of School Choice Advocates Rally at Capitol”, Sara Rumpf, Breitbart, January 30, 2015
- “Parents, students rally for school choice at Texas Capitol”, Mark Wiggins, KVUE, January 30, 2015
- “School Choice Supporters Rally at Capitol”, Morgan Smith, Texas Tribune, January 30, 2015
- “George P. Bush adds star power to school choice rally”, Will Weissert (AP), Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 30, 2015