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Plumbers are training as substitute teachers so full time teachers can protest a bill

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The Texas Legislature is holding a special session this week, and a main issue is school vouchers. A bill, if passed, would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to help pay for private, parochial or home-schooling for their children. At least 30 states have similar voucher-like programs. But Texas public school teachers are pushing back hard, and they're getting help from an unlikely group - union plumbers. The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martinez-Beltran explains.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: It's a Saturday afternoon in Austin, and hundreds are gathering on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. A rally led by Teachers Against School Vouchers is starting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This side, you're going to yell boot. This side, you're going to yell vouchers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everybody got it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Whoo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Boot.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Vouchers.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Boot.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Most people chanting here are educators, like Rosie Curts. She says using taxpayer dollars to pay for the private or parochial school tuition of children undermines public schools.

ROSIE CURTS: If vouchers pass, it would obviously take money away from our public schools, and our public schools already don't get enough funding. And we need more, not less.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: To protest at the Texas Capitol, Curts is getting help from her friend, Travis Cantwell, a plumber and an HVAC technician. Along with a handful of other plumbers and HVAC workers, Cantwell is training to become a substitute teacher so full-time educators can take the day off to fight the vouchers bill. He's planning to teach Curts' class soon.

TRAVIS CANTWELL: Teachers don't get the respect they deserve, and I think that education is No. 1.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Cantwell says he knows everything about toilets and air conditioners, either for homes or giant construction projects, but now he's tackling the paperwork and online training so the Dallas Independent School District can clear him to go into a classroom. He says he and his fellow union plumbers want to do all they can to help teachers fight the vouchers bill.

CANTWELL: It's very powerful for someone who makes $40,000 a year to stand in front of the Texas Leg (ph) and say, I have to buy school supplies with my own money because my district can't give me what I need to do my job.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: The idea of getting plumbers involved came in part from the American Federation of Teachers and Thomas Kennedy, the executive director of the Texas State Building Trades, a coalition of union construction workers, plumbers, pipefitters and electricians. Kennedy has finished his two-hour training to become a substitute teacher in the Austin Independent School District. He knows his way around a construction site but finds the prospect of teaching school-age kids a little intimidating.

THOMAS KENNEDY: I mean, it is scary. 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.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: But Kennedy says he's excited, and he's been trying to convince other fellow union members to join in. It's unclear how much impact the plumbers will have on efforts to stop school vouchers. Republicans in the Texas legislature are pushing hard for the proposal. They say it would give students in low-income communities an opportunity to have a better education. But Zeph Capo, the president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, says what plumbers are doing will help.

ZEPH CAPO: They do believe in public education enough. They do believe in their teachers and in their community members. They're actually willing to figure out how they can step up and help.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Capo says he hopes the new coalition of teachers and construction workers, including plumbers, will accomplish their main goal - defeat school vouchers in Texas once again.

For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBIN THICKE AND LIL WAYNE SONG, "SHOOTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán | The Texas Newsroom