In Texas' Schools, Perry Shuns Federal Influence

Fourth and fifth grade students at the Austin Discovery School.
Fourth and fifth grade students at the Austin Discovery School.

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.

The state’s current incentive pay program fared better in its evaluation, but because the gains were so small among schools, it wasn’t “wholly persuasive,” said Taylor. It’s unlikely there will be a follow-up, Taylor said, because very little financing for the program survived the Legislative session.

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry, said in an email that while the teacher incentive program was affected by the budget, it “remains a priority.”

“The governor understands that we faced considerable budget challenges this last session,” Frazier said. “No agency was spared from reductions in spending, but ultimately he is proud of lawmakers’ tough decisions to keep Texas living within its means without raising taxes.”

The governor has exerted influence through his appointments to the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education, where he has consistently picked from the board’s faction of evangelical conservatives.

Perry has also not been afraid to use — or let lawmakers know he was inclined to use, should they push him — his veto pen. In 2009, he killed bipartisan legislation that would have required limits on class size and offered full-day programs in state kindergarten. In his veto statement, he said the money was better used to serve more children under the state’s current half-day program than to create an additional program.

During the last legislative session, the governor opposed a bill that would have changed how end-of-course exams were factored into graduation requirements under the state’s new accountability system. His office made it clear that if the measure passed, it would be subject to a veto, said Andrew C. Erben, of the Texas Institute for Education Reform, a business-oriented education advocacy group.

“While he and his staff weren’t out front saying it’s a horrible bill, they let it be known they did not support it,” Erben said.

Perry was more publicly adamant in his promise that he would not sign a budget that used the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a tactic that many called for to help ease deep cuts to public education. Lawmakers took him seriously, as was apparent during discussion between two House Republicans on an amendment that became one of the last efforts to use the money to help public schools.

“Is it possible,” Rep. Van Taylor of Plano said, “if the amendment stayed in that the governor might veto the bill?”

Rep. Phil King of Weatherford replied, “Well, my impression of Governor Perry is that he usually does what he says that he’s going to do.”

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