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Abbott Setting Sights on Education Policy Debate

Greg Abbott will launch a series of education policy roundtables Tuesday in Plano, debuting what his campaign said would be a "major issue" for the campaign of the leading Republican candidate for governor.

Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott speaks at a NE Tarrant Tea Party meeting at Concordia Lutheran Church in Bedford.

Attorney General Greg Abbott will spend most of the next month talking about education, signaling that he won’t cede any ground on the issue to state Sen. Wendy Davis, who is making her support of public schools a calling card in the governor’s race.

The leading Republican candidate will launch a series of policy roundtables Tuesday in Plano, offering what may be an early glimpse at the more detailed education policy initiatives he is expected to announce in January. With stops in San Antonio and Weslaco planned for the following week, each event is designed to highlight “success stories” in public education. 

“The fact that we are going to be meeting with these educators and administrators across the state, going to the schools, touring the schools, seeing what works — it stresses the importance that Greg Abbott is going to place on education in this campaign,” Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said. “Education is a major issue for this campaign.”

So far, the focus appears to be online learning and charter schools. The first event will be held in the Plano Independent School District, which is known as a pioneer in virtual education. Next week, Abbott will travel to two charter schools: a KIPP Academy campus in San Antonio and an IDEA Public Schools campus in Weslaco.

Lawmakers addressed each topic during the most recent legislative session — and the battle to pass reforms to state charter school policy and laws covering virtual education exposed division among both Republicans and Democrats about the best approach. Disagreement over the expansion of charter schools and online learning in the state led to concessions from the conservative Republicans, including Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, who backed broader changes.

Chief among the concerns of those who opposed the legislation was the threat of increased privatization in the state’s public education system. That remains a priority for public education advocates in the state, said Carolyn Boyle, the chairwoman of Texas Parent PAC.

Boyle said her organization, which was founded in 2005 to support pro-public education candidates for office, had not decided whether it would weigh in on the governor’s race but would be monitoring Abbott's and Davis' positions on education issues carefully.

She said that in 2015 the state's new governor would be presiding over a Legislature that will revisit some of the same fights in what could be a new environment following a Texas Supreme Court ruling in the ongoing school finance lawsuit.

“It could be corporate franchise tax credits for subsidizing private schools, it could be letting chains of for-profit charter schools come into Texas, it could be private school vouchers,” she said.

House lawmakers, including many Republicans, killed the prospect of voucher legislation in 2013 by passing an early amendment to the state budget prohibiting taxpayer money intended for public schools from going to any private entities — but not before the proposal earned high-profile support from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Patrick, who is now challenging Dewhurst.

Hirsch said he was not aware of any plans to include a discussion of voucher policy in the upcoming series of roundtables.

Until now, Abbott’s discussion of education on the stump has largely been limited to generalities. He told a November gathering of the NE Tarrant Tea Party that his education platform would include a number of proposals, including how to bring more quality principals and teachers to the classroom and how to “get away from the cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to educating our students.” 

He also made a pledge to “drive a stake through the heart of CSCOPE,” a state-developed curriculum system that is wildly unpopular with conservative activists, whose complaints about its alleged liberal indoctrination of students launched a series of legislative and State Board of Education hearings on the topic.

In his time as attorney general, Abbott has not had a prominent role in the debate over education policy. That stands in contrast with Davis, a two-term member of the Senate's Education Committee who before her more famous filibuster last summer was known for the stand she took in the 2011 legislative session against historic budget cuts to the state’s public schools.

The Davis campaign highlighted Abbott's proposal, released earlier this year, to narrow the allowable uses of the so-called Rainy Day Fund. Davis wanted to use some of the money in the fund to restore some of the $5.4 billion cut from public education in 2011. The Legislature restored nearly $4 billion of those cuts. Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders resisted Democratic calls to use money from the Rainy Day Fund to restore the rest of it. 

The proposal, which would require support from two-thirds of the Legislature and approval from Texas voters, would allow use of the Rainy Day Fund only to offset revenue shortfalls in a current biennium, retire existing debt, make one-time expenditures on infrastructure or pay for expenses incurred during a state of disaster as declared by the governor.

Hirsch, the Abbott spokesman, said that under the proposal, legislators could continue to use general revenue to pay for whatever education spending they deem appropriate, and could have tapped into the Rainy Day Fund to cover the 2011 shortfall. But he said the proposed restrictions, had they been in effect, would not have allowed the fund to be tapped to undo cuts made by lawmakers in a previous session.

Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said voters should look to Abbott's actions rather than his words when judging his position on education issues.

"While Senator Davis fought against cuts to our public schools, Greg Abbott wasted taxpayer funds to defend those cuts in court," she said. "Senator Davis was the lone voice in the state Legislature in 2011 to filibuster against a $5.4 billion cut in public education. She supported using the Rainy Day Fund to prevent cuts to our already underfunded public schools."

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Politics Public education 2014 elections Greg Abbott Wendy Davis