In May, during the waning days of the 82nd Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry made a rare trip to the Senate chamber to broker a deal.
Negotiators from the House and the Senate were struggling to cobble together a school finance plan that would slash state financing, integral to closing a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the state’s 2012-13 budget. After about 90 minutes, Perry emerged from the closed-door meeting to tell reporters he felt “very optimistic” that lawmakers would reach an agreement.
Shortly, they did, agreeing to a change in the way the state allocates money to its schools that, in practical terms, meant a historic reduction of $4 billion in financing and an additional $1.4 billion cut in discretionary grants for public education.
How the budget will affect the state’s public schools will be a cornerstone of Perry’s legacy and could influence his fate as a presidential candidate. But he is likely to be remembered most for a far more public battle: staving off the federal government’s influence — and sometimes its dollars — from invading Texas classrooms.
When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan jabbed Perry on public schools in mid-August, it was only the latest skirmish between the governor and the Obama administration since late 2009, when Perry announced that the state would not sign on to common core-curriculum standards. Those criteria, though endorsed by the Obama administration, were developed by a consortium of 48 states and the National Governors Association.
The announcement was quickly followed by news that Texas would not participate in the administration’s signature education program, a competition among states for $4.35 billion in grants, because of its emphasis on the adoption of the common curriculum. Texas public schools were eligible for $700 million through the grants.
“I am not prepared to sell control of our state’s education system for any price,” Perry said in January 2010. The common curriculum, he said, could lead to the “dumbing down” of the state’s standards.
Perry’s disdain for the federal government’s role in public education, along with legal challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal heath care overhaul, fit neatly into his anti-Washington primary campaign against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who challenged him for the 2010 Republican nomination for governor. It can now also be seen as a preamble to his presidential run.
But unlike his positions on health care and environmental regulations, widely shared among conservatives, Perry’s early opposition to the administration’s education policies — whose bipartisan backers include former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida — make him something of an ideological outlier among Republicans.
Of his fellow presidential contenders, Perry “probably has the most fully formed vision of what he would like the federal role to be” in education, said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization.
If Perry wins the nomination, Hess said, it could make public education more important in the general election. Proposals like the common core standards could suddenly become politically charged.
“What’s going to happen is that prominent Republicans broadly supportive of Obama in education may be forced to choose a side,” he said. “Rather than remaining as reforms that both Republicans and Democrats can embrace, these things could be poisoned by association.”
Though federal issues have lately dominated Perry’s discourse on education, in earlier years he actively backed education proposals popular among conservatives, like incentive pay for teachers and private school vouchers, with mixed success.
Vouchers failed several times to make it through the Legislature — proving politically lethal for Kent Grusendorf, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, who strongly supported them — and eventually lost momentum. The “last grasp” at passing a voucher program, said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat who opposed it, was in the 2007 legislative session.
When incentive pay also struggled for passage in the Legislature, Perry set up the state’s first statewide program with an executive order in 2005. It earmarked $10 million in federal money for teachers who had shown progress with students in economically disadvantaged school districts over three years. Lawmakers expanded it in 2006 only to discontinue it 2009 after a three-year study commissioned by the Texas Education Agency found it had little effect on student achievement.
The problem, said Lori Taylor, a researcher at Texas A&M University, who was a co-author of the studies, was not with the concept of incentive pay but in the way the program implemented it, with every school choosing its own design. That meant that districts could, if they wanted, use the money to give every teacher an across-the-board raise regardless of student achievement — and that is what many of them did.