Public school teachers in Texas are protesting vouchers. They’ve enlisted plumbers to help.

A handful of plumbers and construction workers are training as substitutes so they can relieve public school teachers when they head to the state Capitol to protest a bill that would create education savings accounts.

By Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, The Texas NewsroomOctober 16, 2023 10:00 am, ,

From The Texas Newsroom:

As a plumber and an HVAC technician, Travis Cantwell said he’s used to unclogging toilets and fixing air conditioners in homes and businesses.

But Cantwell has been preparing to do something new: substitute teach.

“At least for me, when I think about a substitute teacher, that is probably one of the worst jobs in the world,” Cantwell said.

He’s part of a handful of plumbers and construction workers from across Texas who are training as substitutes so they can relieve public school teachers next week when they head to the state Capitol to protest a bill that would create education savings accounts. The accounts, pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, would grant $8,000 to students to pay for tuition for private schools and other education-related expenses.

Cantwell said he is a product of public schools — and of good public school teachers, in particular.

“You can ask anybody that’s successful or anybody that’s doing something that’s respected in the adult world in a job and there’s a teacher that taught them how to do that,” Cantwell said. “There’s somebody that made them like reading.”

That somebody could be his friend Rosie Curts, a teacher in the Dallas Independent School District whom Cantwell will temporarily replace in the classroom next week.

Curts and other opponents of the bill say using taxpayer dollars to pay for things like private school tuition hurts public schools financially.

“If vouchers pass, it would obviously take money away from our public schools, and our public schools already don’t get enough funding,” Curts said. “We need more, not less.”

Curts said she’s grateful Cantwell and other plumbers are helping teachers in Texas.

“Not only is it important because we need those people to fill the classroom, but also because it shows a growing solidarity among people all over,” Curts said.

Joining forces

Lawmakers considered a school voucher-like proposal during the regular legislative session earlier this year, but it failed to move forward, in part because of the opposition from Republican lawmakers from rural parts of Texas. They argue vouchers would especially hurt less populated areas of the state, which already struggle to secure adequate school funding.

Supporters of vouchers, like Gov. Abbott, say they would empower families and parents to make more education-related decisions for their kids.

Public school teachers — and their plumber backers — disagree. Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said the plumbers will likely impact how legislators will vote on the issue.

“[The plumbers] do believe in public education enough, they do believe in their teachers and their community members, that they are actually willing to figure out how they can step up and help, and in many ways, beat the governor in his own game,” Capo said. “He may have a lot of power and a lot of money at his fingertips, but we have the will of people.”

Thomas Kennedy — the executive director of the Texas State Building Trade, a coalition of union construction workers such as plumbers, pipefitters and electricians — was key in wrangling plumbers to become substitute teachers.

A plumber and product of public schools, Kennedy said he felt his union needed to show solidarity with teachers. He pitched the substitute-teacher idea to the union.

“I think that our public schools have a lot to offer,” he said. “I think that we’ve been shortchanging our public schools, and it’s disheartening when I talk to teachers about how hard they have it.”

Kennedy is in the process of becoming a substitute teacher in the Austin Independent School District. He has taught young adults in an apprenticeship school, but teaching school-age children will be new for him.

“It is scary,” Kennedy said. “I’m not worried about the classroom management aspect of it. Honestly, I’m worried about my construction mouth and saying something I’m not supposed to say.”

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