Visionary to some, anti-public-school bogeyman to others, Kent Grusendorf has been a powerful voice in the state’s debates over public education in the three decades since he launched his political career on the State Board of Education.
An early champion of conservative education reforms based on a philosophy of low regulation and high competition that later gained national prominence with the No Child Left Behind Act, the Arlington Republican finished 20 years in the Texas House with two terms as the chairman of the Public Education Committee. After his defeat in a 2006 primary, Grusendorf has continued to advocate for programs allowing students to use public funds attend to private schools — and to be an outspoken critic of public school bureaucracy.
Most recently, he has taken his cause to the courtroom, leading a newly formed organization called Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education that has intervened in the lawsuit that more than two-thirds of Texas school districts have brought against the state after the Legislature cut roughly $5.4 billion from public schools in 2011.
Grusendorf spoke to The Texas Tribune about what's next for the school finance case and more, including the legislative session for school-choice reform that was not, the politics of public education policy and why he doesn't like the word "voucher."
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.
TT: You were among those who regarded the 2013 legislative session as the best shot yet for school-choice proponents to pass some form of private school voucher legislation. You had national momentum, supportive leadership in the Senate and a public school system in flux because of budget cuts, and a new accountability system in your favor. What happened?
Grusendorf: Well, maybe the stars just weren't aligned the way we would have liked. We didn't really see a lot of leadership other than talk up front, or a lot of action, either inside government or outside.
I think before the session started, [Senate Education Chairman] Dan Patrick did the best he could, but I just don't think he had the votes to get it passed. [House Speaker] Joe Straus pretty well told everybody before the session started that it was dead in the House, and the signal that he was sending was that he didn't want it in the House.
But let me back up, because you’ve got me caught up on the word "vouchers." I don’t really like the term "vouchers" at all.
TT: Why not?
Grusendorf: I don’t think anything that was really promoted this year was is exactly what we used to refer to as vouchers. A voucher, it's just a piece of paper, it implies that we are talking about money. Really, we shouldn't be talking about money; we should be talking about children’s lives. And also, in the past, so-called v-word legislation usually was targeted, pilot programs. It was all designed with a lot of restrictions tied to it. I just think the broader concept is school choice, which is freedom for parents and freedom for children.
TT: Was there a certain moment during the legislative session when you knew that efforts to pass the reforms you describe wouldn’t succeed?
Grusendorf: When Joe Straus appointed the education committee, that was a clear in-your-face move to the governor and lieutenant governor that it was not going to happen. Because Raise Your Hand Texas appointed the committee, Charles Butt appointed the committee. Joe Straus just lifted the names.
TT: Let's talk about Raise Your Hand, the public education advocacy group founded by San Antonio grocery giant Charles Butt. Many have pointed to the influence it has held over education policy this session. What is your perception of the role it has played?
Grusendorf: I think they had a dramatic detrimental effect on students in the state of Texas. Raise Your Hand Texas is designed to protect the institution, not what's best for kids. Charles Butt is the primary funder of that, and I think Raise Your Hand Texas sort of depicts politics in Texas — we joke about it as the Texas two-step — but with Raise Your Hand it's one step forward and two steps backward. I think Raise Your Hand's total focus is the protection of institution of education as opposed to kids getting a good education.
TT: Charles Butt, one of the top political contributors in the state, was a major donor to state Rep. Diane Patrick, the primary opponent who defeated you in 2006. What impact does that kind of funding have on education policy?
Grusendorf: In the past when you had pressure from both sides, things work a little better. What you have right now is almost a vacuum. The more pro-business, more pro-free-market, more pro-what's-good-for-the-kids, those groups have not been as active, have been silenced. That's why Raise Your Hand has had more clout.
TT: That may change, as we saw two new organizations, Texans for Education Reform and Texans Deserve Great Schools, become players in education policy this session.
Grusendorf: I think they are both great. The problem they had this session is that they didn't start up until the session started, and they were playing catch-up all session long. I think they will be a great asset and should help to counter Raise Your Hand’s influence.
TT: Does the failure to pass private school choice legislation this session mean that hopes for that kind of reform in Texas are dead?
Grusendorf: It just means it's delayed. It's going to happen. Markets always prevail in the end. Freedom prevails in the end. Twenty-some-odd states have greater school choice than Texas. Texas is behind the curve. It’ll catch up.
TT: You look at a state like Texas — it’s conservative, it’s business friendly, we’ve had Republicans control the Legislature for a decade. It seems like it should be a place that’s fertile ground for these kinds of education reforms.
Grusendorf: It's been a funny dynamic, really, because you are exactly right — we should be leading, not following, on this issue. When [Republicans] took majority in 2003, we should have done it then. But I think we were new on the job, and unfortunately, including myself, focused on the bigger picture of funding and how we pay for education. We should have made a more concerted effort, and I blame myself more than anybody for not making a more concerted effort. Just think about it — if we had put a pilot program in place, which George Bush campaigned on for governor, that would have been 1995, we'd be almost 20 years ahead of the curve. But that's looking back.
TT: The political dynamic in education is often explained as one that’s more predicted by regional than partisan lines. Do you agree with that analysis?
Grusendorf: I don't really see it as a rural-versus-suburban or a rural-versus-urban issue. When we first started promoting school choice in the 1990s, we had bipartisan support. We had [former Democratic governor] Bob Bullock for it, we had black Democrats for it, trying to help their inner-city kids. And the school community pretty effectively went after those black Democrats and took them out. So now the Democrats, even those that agree with us, seem to be so fearful of the unions it's hard to get any votes. It makes it unfortunately difficult to make it a bipartisan issue, even though it really should be. You have this political perception that the education community is totally opposed to school choice because all of the official associations are against it. I think that is the bigger dynamic than the rural, urban, suburban.
TT: State District Court Judge John Dietz is holding a hearing on whether to reopen evidence in the school finance trial to consider legislative changes on June 19. Your group, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, did not prevail in his initial ruling in February. Do you think anything has changed since then?
Grusendorf: Personally, I don’t think [the legislative session] will have a big effect on his decision. He might change the numbers, but I think Dietz pretty well knows where he is going. I think what happened in session probably helps our case more than any at the Supreme Court level, because basically what you saw is that they add additional money to the system [and lessen accountability measures]. That's the definition of inefficiency — less results more money, so if anything I think the session helps our case more than any other party. And also it proves the political case that we were making — we are really never going to solve the issue of inefficiency without some kind of judicial intervention.