In September, when Sen. Florence Shapiro announced she wouldn't seek re-election, it created what one longtime education consultant called a "major disturbance in the force."
Shapiro’s departure means the end of a nearly two-decade-long tenure in the state Senate marked by deep involvement in education policy — and an opening in the top position on the Senate Education Committee for the first time since 2003.
Whoever claims the Plano Republican's chair on the committee will have a leading role in shaping policy in a 2013 session in which school districts will be feeling the effects of the $5 billion-plus budget cuts enacted last time around and grappling with a rigorous new student assessment system. The next chair will also probably be a key player in what’s sure to be a prickly battle to reform school finance after litigation wends its way through the courts.
The names most frequently mentioned as contenders for the position are Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston. Philosophically, the two men have differences — Seliger has publicly tangled with Tea Party megaphone Michael Quinn Sullivan; Patrick is one of that movement’s most vocal advocates in the upper chamber. But a better indicator of how they might contrast as the Senate’s chief on education policy may be the makeup of their home districts.
In Seliger’s district, a mix of poor school districts and others that have become wealthy from mineral rights, schools are mainly rural and tend to have smaller student enrollments. Patrick’s constituents in suburban Houston attend large, rapidly growing schools that face the challenges of educating an increasing number of low-income and minority students, including the state’s third-largest district, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.
Those differences could become important during a school-finance fight if the interests of smaller districts are pitted against those of larger districts, or the interests of fast-growing districts against those of rural districts. While a chair purportedly keeps what’s best for the whole state in mind, it can be difficult to ignore the influence of the folks on the home front.
Seliger showed a willingness to wade into school-finance issues during the last session. He argued against the current target revenue system, which rewards property-wealthy school districts in favor of one built on cost-based formulas. When the time came to vote on what would become the Senate’s school-finance plan out of a subcommittee, Seliger was the single Republican who voted against it, saying it needed to do more to address the inequities in the system. Patrick voted for it, with the caveat that the senators would continue their work to address target revenue issues.
During his time in the Senate, Patrick, who is currently the vice chairman of the committee, has also been outspoken in his support of school choice. Last session, he carried legislation that would expand the number of charter schools in the state. But despite his conservative talk radio host day job, Patrick has largely kept his politics out of his education policy, said Jason Sabo, an education lobbyist.
“People were expecting him to be more bombastic and partisan than he has been,” he said, adding, “The general consensus was that he would politicize the work of the committee in his role there. And to be honest, I haven't seen that happen.”
Of course, all of this depends on the political deal-making that occurs in the background of the race for lieutenant governor, who appoints the committee chairs. (Carl Parker, a Port Arthur Democrat who headed the education committee from 1983 to 1991, offered a succinct explanation on how to get a chairmanship: “You suck up to the lieutenant governor.")
That means neither Patrick or Seliger could end up with the seat. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and current chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, has also been floated as a possibility. In any case, Shapiro’s successor is unlikely to wield the same kind of power in the position.
“The senator has had a strong set of opinions in the bills that went through her committee,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert who has followed Texas education policy for four decades. "In this set of arrangements, whoever is playing that role in the Senate will not be able to be in as strong a position.”
Shapiro has been a fierce proponent for student assessment-based accountability for school districts, a position that has at times set her apart from other Republicans. Patrick and Seliger may share her positions on accountability but may not be as willing — or have the same political capital that would allow them — to draw a line in the sand as firmly as she did.
There are also signs that Seliger differs with his would-be predecessor on some accountability issues. During the last session, he teamed up with state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, on a bill that would have reduced testing by exempting students who perform well on exams in third grade from taking them in fourth grade and those who perform well on exams in fifth grade from taking them in sixth and seventh grades. In 2007, he introduced a bill that would get rid of TAKS exams for high school students altogether.
In an interview, Seliger called himself a “Florence Shapiro acolyte” and said she had encouraged his involvement with education issues in the Senate. In addition to sorting out school-finance issues, he said lawmakers next session should conduct a “full examination of the testing regimen to make sure we are finding out exactly what we need to find out.” (Patrick could not return a phone call because he was out of the country.)
School finance may not come up as an issue during the next session — lawmakers are liable to leave that alone until the latest round of school finance lawsuits is settled, with a decision expected in the summer of 2013 — but if the courts declare the current system unconstitutional, they could end up in a special session devoted to the issue.
“Regardless, this next chair is going to have to handle probably the most complicated and contentious issue the Legislature is going to deal with for the next decade,” Sabo said. “The public is getting fatigued with the ping pong Legislature to courts to Legislature to courts to Legislature to courts, and people want resolution of the school finance question.”