When Republican lawmakers talk about the cuts to public education made in the last session, a common refrain emerges: It could have been worse. The $4 billion reduction the House and Senate finally agreed on wasn’t nearly as frightening as the $10 billion slashed in the plan passed by the lower chamber with its Tea Party-fueled supermajority.
At the time, lawmakers at the Capitol said they were taking seriously what they viewed as the mandate of the 2010 election: Voters wanted no new taxes and a reduction in government spending.
But there are GOP candidates who hope that if they come to Austin in 2013, it will be with different instructions.
In several Republican state House 2012 primary races across the state, the conversation may yet turn from invective against government spending to worry over increasing school class sizes and more rigorous student testing. There are at least a few candidates emerging who've traded in the anti-Washington cries of the last election cycle for a message with a different focus: the state of Texas public schools.
Whether that messaging ultimately gets them into office remains unclear — the next general election is a year away, of course — but the success of their candidacies will be an effective gauge of the electorate’s mood.
David Anderson, an education lobbyist and former Texas Education Agency staffer, called the March 2012 primaries “a critical indicator” of the public’s reaction to the budget cuts passed earlier this year. Presented with the option, he said, “will people turn out in the Republican primary and vote for Republican candidates who make a significant part of their platform restoring funding to public ed and bring some coherency to some of the critical issues?”
At least four candidates have formed campaigns based on public education issues so far: Bennett Ratliff, who’s running for an open Dallas-area state House seat; current State Board of Education member Marsha Farney, who’s running for an open House seat based in Williamson County; Trent Ashby, who’s challenging freshman state Rep. Marva Beck of Centerville; and James Wilson, who’s opposing state Rep. Debbie Riddle in her district bordering Houston.
“People are just now beginning to understand and feel the impacts of the budgetary constraints,” said Ratliff, a longtime member of the Coppell ISD school board in suburban Dallas. “Just now gone back to school, just now starting to realize that student teacher ratios aren't what they've been. They’re just now starting to realize we are starting to look at programs that may not survive next year.”
“You've got a lot of very upset teachers, very upset parents,” Wilson said.
That doesn’t necessarily translate to voters wanting to spend more — both Ratliff and Ashby emphasized the need for local control and school finance reform over increased funding.
“I haven't been out on the stump saying that we need to throw a bunch of new money at public education in Texas,” said Ashby, who is the president of the Lufkin school board. “But what I have been out saying that we need to make sure that we look at our current school finance system in a way that when we talk changes we ensure that schools aren’t being based on their zip code.”
Since the last legislative session, Lufkin ISD, along with almost 300 other districts, has signed onto a lawsuit challenging, among other aspects, the equity of the state’s method of funding schools. At least one other suit is expected to follow.
Beck, Ashby’s opponent, said that in her interactions with constituents, public education isn’t foremost on voters’ minds. A candidate with a school board background like Ashby, she said, would naturally emphasize education. Though there were “issues in public education that need to be addressed,” she said that along with the continued budgetary difficulties, her constituents were primarily concerned with border security.
“If you aren't safe to go to school then the problems at school become secondary,” she said. “There is violence beyond belief that is happening on our border.”
Lawmakers have felt the consequences of a perceived hostility to public education before. The most famous example was in 2006, when the then-chairman of the public education committee, state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, lost his bid for an 11th term to state Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, after a contentious battle over vouchers and school finance during the previous session.
Patrick, who has endorsed Ratliff, said that “there are concerns everywhere” that public education remain what she said was already the top priority for the legislature.
“A good strong public education system is essential to the economy of the state,” she said. Those who are running on public education platforms, she said, “understand that relationship.”