As the field of candidates shapes up for the March 2012 primaries, a new — at least since last election cycle — breed of GOP hopeful is emerging: the education Republican. In several races across the state, candidates who hope to turn the conversation from the anti-Washington cries of the last round for to worry over increasing school class sizes and more rigorous student testing.
At least four candidates have formed campaigns based on public education issues so far: Bennett Ratliff, who’s running for an open Dallas-area House seat; current State Board of Education member Marsha Farney, who’s running for an open seat in Georgetown; 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,” says 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 we that may not survive next year.”
That doesn’t necessarily translate to voters wanting to spend more — both Ratliff and Ashby emphasize 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,” says Ashby, who is the president of the Lufkin school board.
The success of their candidacies will be an effective gauge as to how much the public is feeling the sting of the Legislature’s cuts to public education. And some argue that just because candidates are running on pro-education platforms doesn’t mean that’s what voters care about right now. 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 says, would naturally emphasize education. Though there were “issues in public education that need to be addressed,” she says 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 says. “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 recent example was in 2006, when state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, then the chairman of the public education committee, lost his bid for an eleventh 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, says that, “there are concerns everywhere” that public education remain what she says was already the top priority for the Legislature.
“A good strong public education system is essential to the economy of the state,” she says. Those who are running on public education platforms “understand that relationship.”