Vol 30, Issue 28 Print Issue

A New Perry vs. Doggett Education Fight?

Pre-K students in Josefina Pineda's classroom do the hokey-pokey at the Dallas Independent School District elementary school, Cesar Chavez Learning Center in Dallas, Texas.
Pre-K students in Josefina Pineda's classroom do the hokey-pokey at the Dallas Independent School District elementary school, Cesar Chavez Learning Center in Dallas, Texas.

Gov. Rick Perry may soon have the chance to add a line to the “fighting federal intrusion into Texas classrooms” section of his resume before he leaves office.

Under a major new Obama administration initiative promoting early education, Texas is eligible for $308 million in federal money to fund full-day pre-kindergarten programs for students from low-income families. But if the past is any guide, it's far from a sure thing that money will actually reach the state.

States are still awaiting details from the U.S. Department of Education on how the program, which would require Texas to provide a match of about $30 million in state funding, will work. Spokesmen for both the governor and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said they would await further information from the feds before making a decision on whether the state would apply.

More guidance information may emerge soon. On Wednesday, President Obama selected a Texan, Libby Doggett, to head the early education division that will supervise the program.

The choice adds a layer of political intrigue to discussions over whether the state will apply for the funds.

Doggett is a former elementary school teacher and longtime education policy wonk whose credits include directing the Pew Charitable Trust's Pre-K Now Campaign. She is also the wife of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat who hasn’t shied from publicly tangling with Perry over many topics, including federal education funds.

The congressman and the governor feuded over a larger chunk of federal education funding — $830 million in education stimulus money — in the summer of 2010, when Doggett and other congressional Democrats amended a bill allocating $10 billion in federal funding for education to say Texas couldn't use its portion to supplant state funding of schools. Perry then said he couldn’t guarantee Texas could adhere to that condition without the permission of state lawmakers, and the Department of Education denied the state's application for the money.

The back-and-forth escalated when the governor poked Doggett in his January 2011 State of the State address to the Legislature. Perry said the state needed to help school districts through tight times, which he said had been “made worse by a certain Texas congressman who singled out our state for punishment in pursuit of his own agenda."

Doggett responded by saying the governor’s "jibe says less about the state of the state and more about his own state of denial."

That money eventually made its way to Texas schools after Doggett’s language was removed in a congressional budget deal that April.

Texas currently pays for half-day preschool programs for public school students from low-income, non-English-speaking and military families. In 2013, lawmakers did not restore roughly $200 million in state grants — cut in 2011 — that had helped school districts expand to full-day programs.

If the state declines to apply for the preschool initiative, it also won’t be the first Obama administration education funding Texas has turned down. As he geared up for a tough primary challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010, Perry announced the state wouldn’t apply for the Race to the Top program, shutting the door on a potential $700 million federal money. 

The program was designed to push states toward a number of education reforms, including overhauling failing schools, promoting charters schools and signing on to the national common core curriculum standards.

“We would be foolish and irresponsible,” Perry said at the time, “to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special-interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.”