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Rick Perry on Our Schools

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Here is the text of Perry’s new TV spot on education. The governor does all the talking, on screen or in the background. “Public school funding, standards, and achievement are all up. I’m proud of Texas schools. Since I became governor, education funding has increaed nine billion dollars. We passed a $2,000 teacher pay raise and the nation’s largest merit pay program. We’ve accomplished a lot but we still can do more. That’s why we are directing schools to spend at least 65% of their money on classroom instruction. Education is our future, and my highest priority.

The ad drew fire from both the Strayhorn and Bell camps. In a San Antonio Express News story, the Strayhorn campaign challenged Perry’s claim that education funding has increased $9 billion since he became governor. The Strayhorn claim is that the money came from local tax increases, not the state budget. Does that matter? Without question, the budget has increased. The Legislature adds about a billion dollars every biennium for enrollment growth, and it put more than $3 billion into the schools during the special session last spring, including a teacher pay raise. All of that happened on Perry’s watch, and he gets to share the credit.

Bell attacked Perry for something that is not in the ad, his failure to address dropout rates. But Perry has participated in an initiative by the Bill Gates and Michael Dell foundations for smaller, experimental high schools. A Perry campaign spokesman made the bogus claim that the dropout rate was only 4.3%. I served on a committee at my daughter’s high school, and I saw firsthand how schools try to manipulate the dropout rate. Ours hired a “dropout specialist” who spent all his time trying to track down kids who had left school and would never come back, because if you can show that they are attending another school or have moved out of state or intended to take the GED exam, you could scratch them off the dropout list. The one thing he did not do was identify kids who were actually in school but at risk of dropping out and try to help them. The real dropout rate, as reported by Gary Scharrer in the linked article, is more like one in three: “There were 239,716 high school seniors graduating in the class of 2005, according to the Texas Education Agency — leaving more than 124,000 unaccounted for from the 364,270 students from that class who entered ninth grade in 2001.”

Perry has a hit-and-miss record as a supporter of education. He has defended accountability, which is all we have to judge how well our students are doing. In his first session as governor, he supported the teacher health insurance legislation that provided $1,000 per teacher; in the next session, he approved a budget that cut the stipend to $500. In 2004, during the first special session on school finance, a Perry staffer told me that the governor opposed any across-the-board pay increase; any pay raise would have to be incentive pay. Incentive pay is an experimental idea. Maybe it will work. It’s worth a try. But it ought to be in addition to normal pay raises, not instead of.

Also in 2004, Perry opposed any new money for education that came out of tax revenue. He said that any new money would have to come from gambling. The schools, of course, opposed this, since the amount of funding was not predictable–nor was the success of gambling legislation. The recent special session provided some $3.8 billion in new money for education, but after this infusion, the schools may find themselves in a straightjacket. The legislation Perry signed allocated all of the new business tax to cutting property taxes. Nothing can be spent on education. Schools are allowed to raise their tax rates by 4 cents, and after that, any increase will require a vote of the people. Perry also wants to cap property appraisals, which could have a severe effect on facilities funding. Finally, the governor touts his proposal to require that a school district spend at least 65% of its funds in the classroom. It sounds good, and maybe it will help some districts–but knowledgeable legislators have told me that there is no correlation between the 65% rule and student achievement. Oh, how could I forget. He favors vouchers, the pet project of James Leininger. That vote caused almost caused Tom Craddick to lose control of the House in ’05.

I would characterize Perry’s record on education as inconsistent, better in the short run than in the long run. When he had to step up to the plate, during the special session, he did so. He supported a new source of funding to for a property tax cut, he gave teachers a pay raise, he kept the schools from closing. But he put some spending restraints on schools that may turn out to have gone too far. I think the 2004 session reflected how he really feels–no new money from tax dollars, no pay raises for teachers except incentive raises, they’re all Democrats anyway–but I think his record is credible enough to forestall a killer spot on the subject by one of his opponents.

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