Education has emerged as one of the more contentious fronts in the gubernatorial campaign, with Kay Bailey Hutchison this week releasing a barrage of school proposals and attacks on the status quo. But the differences between the candidates have more to do with execution than with design.
Her central claims in a recent attack piece: Test scores have remained flat while spending has increased under Perry, and the state’s dropout rate is among the worst in the country.
Even in the murky realm of dropout data, the crisis is evident, with roughly a third of students failing to graduate. But “one of the highest dropout rates in the nation,” as the Hutchison camp puts it, probably overstates the matter. The latest U.S. Department of Education study ranks Texas 36th among the states in graduation rates and fifth among the ten largest states.
The Hutchison camp asserts many of Perry's claims to education accomplishments are littered with "words like 'proposed' and 'focused'" and thus are "a list of programs and not results.” (Perry’s Web site, conspicuously, doesn’t include a list of K-12 accomplishments, only mentioning higher education; though a campaign staffer says an update will appear soon.)
In the meantime, Hutchison released a list of her own proposals and foci — many of which seem to mimic current programs or policies already underway in the state, and which, in typical campaign style, do not come with a price tag or proposed financing. Instead, there is talk of promoting “efficiency,” through the designation of “pathfinder districts” that can manage to boost academic achievement on the cheap.
“We can improve our education system without simply throwing more tax dollars at the problems,” Hutchison’s education plan claims.
This echoes prophecies of “efficiencies” coming to the rescue in Democratic plans for massive increases in national health care spending, which Hutchison herself would no doubt ridicule. Counting on any government — conservative or liberal — to offset new spending with waste-cutting may require more faith than the typical voter can muster.
As for Texas education, here’s where it could get interesting: As the two red-state candidates continue their bids to match conservative credentials, can Hutchison differentiate her platform from the status quo she blasts?
Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott, a Perry appointee and a former adviser to the governor, was irked enough at Hutchison's education plan to sit for an extended point-by-point analysis. The document, he said, generally reads like a review of the best state programs already up and running.
"Her adoption of these plans is a flattering recognition of my life's work," he said. "It had an 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' feel to it — like somebody stole my identity."
Hutchison campaign staffers conceded the state has launched many plans similar to those proposed or praised by their candidate, though current programs have helped only “in small ways.” They questioned whether Perry has shown personal leadership on many of them and asserted they have produced few positive results.
“After ten years in office, it’s amazing we’re still talking about a dropout crisis,” said Hutchison spokesman Joe Pounder.
Scott cited “attrition rate” figures from the Intercultural Development Research Association, which has been highly critical of his office and how it counts drop out rates. Though the IDRA figures generally show the worst picture compared to other methods for estimating drop-outs, they clearly show a trend of improvement, dropping to 31 percent attrition between 9th and 12th grades this year from 40 percent in 2000.
Here’s the condensed version of Hutchison’s plan:
Hutchison supports expanding charters schools, as does Perry. Charter expansion just took a major step forward with recent and controversial policy changes that could accelerate their growth in the state.
She supports expanding classroom technology, as does Perry and seemingly every politician on earth. (It’s worth noting that the Texas Education Agency is in the middle of a major push to overhaul the purchasing of digital curriculum materials. Hutchison’s campaign staff suggested that resulted less from Perry’s leadership than that of legislators.)
She supports alternative pathways to the teaching profession, such as Teach for America. Many conservatives, including Perry, support such programs. More importantly, the critical decisions on whether to contract with them for recruiting, or hire the teachers they train, often happen far from Austin, at the district level. Hutchison also called for the expansion of UTeach, a University of Texas at Austin program specializing in training math and science teachers.
She supports tackling the drop-out crisis “head on.” This includes a variety of proposals, some more clear than others, some already in the works.
Hutchison recently dressed down the Perry Administration under the headline, “Typical Perry,” and the subhead, “Education Spending Goes Up But Results Remain The Same.” Scott, however, said the claims were cherry-picked and misrepresent the complete picture of the state’s academic performance, which he believes shows clear progress.
Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner said state test scores are up "in every subject, in every grade" this year over last year. And scores on the ACT are up as well, despite the fact that more students than ever are taking the test. The Hutchison campaign had cited stagnant scores on the other major college exam, the SAT.
"Once again they're criticizing without offering solutions, except for preparing the same policies the governor is already implementing," Minor said, adding Hutchison's plan seemed "taken from the state (Texas Education Agency) website."
What's it all come to? At first blush, there appears to be little ideological difference between the Republicans in the race — what matters will be their ability to execute.