Primary a Mixed Bag for Public Education Candidates

Sometime between 1 and 2 a.m. on June 10, 2011, Rep. Sylvester TurnerD-Houston, delivered a warning to his fellow Texas House members.

"In the end, the people of the state of Texas must have the final say," said Turner, the latest in a series of Democrats who had lined up to seal in the public record their intense disapproval of what was about to happen.

Shortly after, his colleagues passed a bill that solidified a $5.4 billion reduction in funding to public schools. Now, almost a year later, the people of Texas have had their say — but it’s unclear what they meant.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who stood at the front microphone that night defending the legislation, lost his seat. Instead of a crusading champion of public schools, however, his opponent was a grassroots conservative who attracted backing from Tea Party-aligned political action committees across the state that attacked Eissler for being too moderate.

Candidates with strong records on public education defeated Republican incumbents Marva Beck of Centerville and Wayne Christian of Center, who both counted among their supporters the budget-slashing right wing of the GOP. But it’s impossible to say education issues alone are what swayed voters in their direction. Chris Paddie, who defeated Christian, is the mayor of Marshall, the population center of the newly redrawn district. Similarly, Trent Ashby, who defeated Beck, is the president of the school board in Lufkin, the seat of the district’s largest county.

In contests for open seats, four candidates backed by the pro-education Parent PAC won their races; another five are in runoffs. Two are in runoffs against incumbents: J.D. Sheffield against Rep. Sid Miller. Eleven lost.

Results on the State Board of Education, whose 15 members were all up for re-election due to redistricting and whose dynamics often pit social conservatives against more traditional advocates for public education, don’t offer much insight either. All of the social conservative candidates kept their seats save for one. In the open spots, some of the candidates backed by the far right won and some lost.

May 29 did cement one outcome. Eissler’s defeat — following the retirement of his vice chairman, Scott Hochberg, his Senate counterpart Florence Shapiro and the exit of three other key lawmakers on the House Public Education Committee — means there will be a change in leadership on education issues next session. And some in the education community aren’t exactly trembling at that prospect.

Despite the veteran members' departure, "the cupboard is certainly not bare," in terms of education policy experience, said David Anderson, an education lobbyist at the government consulting firm HillCo Partners.

"The important questions are not so much about capacity or lack of knowledge as they are about who will take on the responsibilities," he said, "House members have to be responsible for developing a working knowledge of state education policies."

Reps. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, have demonstrated the capability to lead on education issues. Other current members — including Reps. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City — and incoming freshman like Ashby and Marsha Farney have concrete experience in education to draw upon.

Carolyn Boyle, the director of Parent PAC, said she was pleased with the influx of new faces to the Legislature. There was a reason, she said, her organization stayed away from endorsing incumbents this cycle: Many of them, even those who are generally considered advocates on public education issues like Eissler, voted for the budget cuts.

“Our primary purpose was to try and bring in new talent,” she said, “Hopefully some of the new people could come in with fresher experience than what Rob Eissler had. It's been 10 plus years since Rob Eissler has served on a school board.”

Then there is the fact that because of the looming lawsuits against the state over school funding, many believed lawmakers would throw in the towel on education issues next session anyways.

Educators weren’t expecting very much, said Joe Smith, a former superintendent who now runs the education news site TexasISD.com.  He said he remained optimistic about having new lawmakers in the top roles.

“It’s more of an opportunity than not that those leaders that are not there anymore,” he said, “They had been there a long time, and I'm not sure we have a lot to show for it. Matter of fact, some people saying the position we’re in now is because of them.”

For his part, Eissler said he would not have done anything differently.

“They were decisions it was my job to make,” he said, “If I had to do over again, I would make the same decisions. It's a precarious position, that's the nature of the business.”

And he added that he’ll try to help out as much as he can with the transition.

“It's not like I got shot and died,” he said, “Though I'm sure there's some that would have preferred that.”

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