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Polling Center: Education Cuts Mattered at the Ballot Box, if Not in the Polls

Polls might show a low interest in public education cuts made by lawmakers in 2011, but some of the candidates who ran in 2012 found a very receptive electorate.

By Jeff Crosby
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Joshua Blank and Jim Henson recently wrote “there is little evidence of a large-scale negative reaction to education funding cuts in Texas public opinion.”

I beg to differ. And I bet former state Reps. Dee Margo, R-El Paso, and Connie Scott, R-Corpus Christi, would too.

Both of them supported the cuts and subsequently lost to Democrats who vowed to restore the cuts. I produced the mail for the victors, Abel Herrero of Robstown and Joe Moody of El Paso.

Mail pieces for both were built around two key messages:

  • Their opponents attacked public education by backing high-stakes standardized testing and casting votes that caused a major teacher shortage and a dramatic increase in overcrowded classrooms.
  • They would stop the downhill slide in public education by reducing standardized tests, bringing back fired teachers and reducing class sizes.

Note that we said nothing about money or even budget cuts — which, to be fair, is what Henson and Blank asked about in their polling. Instead, we focused on the consequences, the tangible things that people could see and easily understand.

We didn’t develop these messages on a whim. Poll after poll showed that public education was a powerful vote-mover. And the Republicans had no compelling defense.

Herrero and Moody were not outliers. Public education was the centerpiece of hard-fought victories by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio. Three other poorly funded Democratic House candidates lost narrowly after running campaigns focused on education.

So why is there a disparity between the University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls and the election results?

One, I think there is an over-reliance on the “most important problem” question. It provides a reading on the hot issue of the moment, but that can change in a heartbeat these days. More importantly, I have found over the years that what people say is the most important issue is usually not the same as the one that persuades them to vote one way or another. One is an opinion, the other is an action.

Two, I think their caveat about local schools versus the state school system is dead-on. Large majorities usually gush all over their local schools. If you call them “neighborhood” schools or ask about their teachers, they’ll start jumping up and down for joy. After all, who’s not going to be true to their school?

However, support for the state system is usually far smaller. Maybe it’s the standardized tests that drive it. Or it could be the pro-ignorance crowd on the State Board of Education. In any event, I would recommend asking about both local schools and the state system in future polls to get a better read.

Three, their second caveat regarding their samples skewing toward upper income voters is important, but not for the reasons they state. It’s not because these working-class voters necessarily have poor schools. In many cases, their local schools are about average. Instead, working-class voters — especially Latinos — view education as their children’s ticket to a better future.  When you damage their schools, you threaten their dreams.

I’m not in the business of providing advice to Republicans, especially those in competitive districts where I might have a Democratic client someday. I doubt any of them would care what I think, anyway.

So, I’ll just say they could be whistling past their political graveyards if they think the voters don’t care about what they do to their schools. They do care — and they are watching.

Crosby is a veteran Democratic political consultant.

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Politics Public education Budget