Guest Column: Dems Face Hurdles Winning Over Public

State Rep. Sylvester Turner (c) raises questions on SB1811 as colleagues State Rep. Armando Walle (l), D-Houston, State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, and State Rep. Mark Strama (r), D-Austin, listen in the evening of May 29, 2011.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner (c) raises questions on SB1811 as colleagues State Rep. Armando Walle (l), D-Houston, State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, and State Rep. Mark Strama (r), D-Austin, listen in the evening of May 29, 2011.

A quick look at some polling crosstabs on attitudes toward cutting public education spending suggests Democrats face significant obstacles in their announced effort to mobilize public outrage against the $4 billion cut to public education that will be at issue in the special session. 

As the accompanying table illustrates, the Democrats are representing the positions of their base in attitudes toward public education. The table, drawn from results of the May 2011 University of Texas/Texas Tribune statewide poll, presents approval for proposed budget cuts related to public education cross tabulated by responses to our hypothetical congressional vote choice item that offered Texans the option of voting for a Tea Party candidate. Those who chose the Democratic candidate in this choice show scant support for any of education-related cuts.

ChoiceDemRepTea PartyDKTotal
Cut funding for primary and secondary education 2% 21% 32% 15% 15%
Cut funds for higher education 6% 35% 58% 23% 27%
Cut funding for pre-k classes 13% 50% 68% 41% 40%
Cut grants to college students 11% 34% 51% 24% 28%
Cut state funds for teacher and state employee retirement 13% 41% 68% 24% 35%

But support for cuts to public education is stronger among Republicans, and much stronger still among those who opted for the hypothetical Tea Party candidate, 85 percent of whom identify with the Republican Party. While only a third say they approve of cutting state funding for primary and secondary education, this is still 11 points higher than the mainline Republican positions, and 29 points higher than the Democratic positions. In every other education item, Tea Party support is higher than 50 percent. The Republican loyalists in the item are consistently less likely to support public education cuts but are still at least three times higher than that of Democrats. 

This would seem to suggest that Democratic prospects of using the 30 days of the special session to turn the tide of the majority is swimming against a strong current of skepticism, if not outright hostility, about the value of funding public education in the state at the moment. Even in the event of more protests by education groups, the base supporting Republican legislators remains unlikely to join the protests in the short run. As many have noted, both outside the Legislature and on the floor of both chambers, this may change once parents in rural and suburban Republican strongholds see the concrete results of what the Republican legislature has implemented during the 82nd Legislature. But these consequences are unlikely to manifest themselves in the short run. 

In the immediate term, Republican skepticism about public education spending joined with the governor’s determination to hold the line on spending, including on public education, is likely to carry the day — whether it takes a few hours or 30 more days.

James Henson directs the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas. He also is co-director of the UT/Texas Tribune poll with Daron Shaw.

 

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