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With Education Vetoes, Abbott Nods to Tea Party

The conservative wing of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's party wasn't thrilled with his first legislative session, objecting most notably to his "godless" pre-kindergarten plan. But Abbott seems to be mending fences by vetoing two measures the Tea Party disliked.

Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas State Prayer Breakfast in Austin on May 4, 2015.

After drawing fire over education policy from his party's right wing during the first legislative session of his term, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appears to be seeking ways to mend fences with vetoes of two seemingly uncontroversial measures that conservative activists felt were stalking horses for Common Core.

Abbott on Saturday nixed Senate Bill 313, which directed the State Board of Education to take a new look at the state's public school curriculum standards with an eye on how long it takes to teach — and learn — everything that is required. On Friday, he zeroed out $193,000 a year in state funding for membership dues in a research organization known as the Southern Regional Education Board. 

Tea Party activists believed both measures might open the doors of state classrooms to Common Core, a set of national reading and math learning benchmarks reviled by conservatives and banned by the state in 2013. But the vetoes have baffled many in the education community, who said they can't discern any connection between Common Core and the proposals Abbott tanked.

“There is no way to sugarcoat [SB 313] being linked to Common Core in any way,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who sits on the State Board of Education. “For anyone to suggest [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick’s Senate and a supermajority of Republicans in the House want to have anything to do with Common Core, it’s just ludicrous.”

The bipartisan legislation, which passed both chambers overwhelmingly, was aimed at a longstanding complaint from educators who say the state’s curriculum standards are a mile wide and an inch deep — containing so many requirements that teachers can sometimes spend only a single day on an entire lesson.

“We are not questioning the standards that the state board wrote. What we questioned was, look at our school year and how much time we have to teach what they ask us to teach,” said Granger Independent School District Superintendent Randy Willis, who was among educators pushing for the bill during the session.

But the State Republican Executive Committee passed a resolution calling on Abbott to kill the measure, saying it would have forced the board of education “to remove content and make it more general,” reflecting “the philosophy underlying Common Core standards.”

In his veto statement, Abbott said he scuttled the bill because it “potentially restricts the ability of the State Board of Education to address the needs of Texas classrooms.” While portions of the legislation “may have merit,” he said, “serious concerns were raised about other parts of the bill.”

Amarillo Republican state Sen. Kel Seliger, the bill's author and chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, called the Common Core argument “false and misleading.”

“I don’t think there were valid policy reasons to veto the bill,” he said, adding that he himself opposes Common Core.

Similar reaction marked Abbott's decision to strip funding from the budget for the state's membership in the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit that helps states develop policies geared toward preparing students for college and career. The organization was established by a group of governors and state legislatures in 1948. It had planned to spend more than $4 million for teacher development in Texas schools over the next four years, according to its president, Dave Spence.

In his veto statement, Abbott said he objected to the state’s membership because “the federal government should not determine what is taught in Texas classrooms, and Texas taxpayer dollars should not be used to finance the promotion of Common Core.”

Spence said the reasoning behind the veto stunned him.

“The facts are all wrong,” he said. “We have no relationship with the federal government. We have had no hand in the Common Core or in developing it or even reviewing it.”

Abbott’s approach to education policy had not received high marks from conservative activists during the session. Tea Party leaders blasted his signature pre-kindergarten bill in a letter that became public as “a threat to parental rights” that promoted a “godless environment” at taxpayers’ expense. 

He also drew criticism from the right for his first picks for the University of Texas Board of Regents, one of whom was viewed unfavorably because of her role in promoting Common Core. All three were confirmed by the state Senate in early March after objections throughout the process from the chamber’s conservative faction.

In addition to the vetoes, Abbott signaled last week that the Tea Party still has his ear by appointing Donna Bahorich, a former aide to Patrick favored by conservatives, to lead the State Board of Education.

House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said in a statement that he was concerned that some of Abbott’s recent actions played into the “paranoia that is driving education policy in the state,” which he called “toxic and counterproductive.”

“I hope Texans will reject the Tea Party mantra that educators are ‘godless socialists’ and that children are ‘trapped in failing schools’ and instead pull together to support and improve our public schools,” he said.

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