AFF 2014: Documentary “Promises” to Inspire Need for Texas Education Reform

It took “The Texas Promise,” Vanessa Roth’s new documentary about the current state of public education in Texas, only 20 minutes to turn me into a passionate crusader for Texas schools and for the reduction of statewide tests.

“The Texas Promise” centers on the state Legislature’s 2011 budget cuts from public schools, which saw a loss of $5.4 billion in funding. While the film’s subject matter does have a lot to do with the political nature surrounding the budget cuts, Roth does a great job of sticking to the facts rather than just ranting about partisan politics.

“The Texas Promise” is directed and produced by Academy Award-winner Vannessa Roth. Photo from thetexaspromisemovie.org.

“The Texas Promise” seemed to touch all bases of Texas schools, including public education, charter schools, budget cuts and even standardized testing. There were many instances where some members of the community, including mothers and even pastors, discussed how the 2011 budget cuts turned them into education activists, where they continue to fight against budget cuts and try to get more funding directed toward their schools. One mom discussed how she’s seen “odd” items show up on her son’s back-to-school shopping lists; one of those being a box of crayons that wouldn’t be used for her son, but rather for the school’s art department due to the lack in funding. On standardized testing, one high school teacher talked about how he was almost fired because of his classes’ low standardized test scores, even though he’s considered one of the school district’s greatest teachers.

Throughout the entire span of the documentary, I can only recall one time when a source talked about his personal political viewpoints. This restraint from partisanship showed just how much public education funding transcends politics – that is, for most Texas. In the one instance where a source talks about personal politics, one Texas principal talked about how he has very conservative views, but yet, he also believes that Texas should invest more into the quality and rigor of public education. “The Texas Promise” did a fantastic job of informing its audience with facts and data, as well as showcasing very knowledgeable sources from all walks of life, rather than “telling” its audience about what to think overall.

Overall, I wouldn’t call myself the biggest fan of documentaries, but I have to say that “The Texas Promise” brought me to tears at times. As someone who just recently graduated high school, I find it hard to hear the stories of some Texans who aren’t as fortunate as I was to find a school that challenged me and helped me find my future career plans. I grew up in the North Dallas suburbs, so I’ve always been accustomed to educational privilege; however, my school itself did see losses in funding just like any other public school in Texas. The lesson from “The Texas Promise,” in my opinion, is that the state Legislature’s 2011 budget cuts had a powerful ripple effect on the quality of education in all public schools and affected every single student in the entire state.

Some students, however, like Jennifer Gonzales, the valedictorian of her 2013 graduating class in South Texas, were disproportionately affected by the cuts in comparison to those living in more affluent school districts. Along with her sister, Gonzales took the camera crew on an in-depth tour of her parents’ jobs, her current home and past days living in a mobile home. Because her mother can barely speak English and her father isn’t fluent, Gonzales said she was never able to get the help she needed from her parents in her early years in school. But she was always determined, and she ended up getting accepted into Texas A&M University, despite everything seeming to work against her.

In the film’s end and recap, Gonzales shows how student determination can lead to a brighter future, even in the face of school budget cuts and other financial hurdles. In her valedictory speech, Gonzales speaks about how her teachers, school administrators and parents helped carve a path for her that led her to receive an associate’s degree while still in high school.

The meaning and impact of Gonzales’ speech sort of embodies the entire message of Roth’s “The Texas Promise”: it’s not just funding that’s important to the quality education that Texas students receive – it’s also the teachers, administrators and parents that are involved in the whole process altogether – and that’s something state legislators can never take away.

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