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The Rick Perry Report Card

Public Education

Grade: D

A crowd rallying for education funding in 2011. (©Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

State leaders face no greater challenge than a budget shortfall, and the hole left in the budget by the Great Recession was one for the ages: $27 billion at the beginning of the 2011 session. With a new Republican super-majority in the House, tax increases and other forms of revenue were out, so massive cuts were inevitable. As one of the biggest pieces of the budget pie, public education was a fat target. Still, there was some good news: the state had roughly $6 billion available in the Rainy Day Fund, which is set aside for a crisis. By nearly anyone’s standard, it was definitely pouring in Texas. But the governor insisted that it wasn’t.

Already an undeclared candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Governor Perry saw a political opportunity where others saw a public policy emergency. He announced that he wouldn’t sign a budget that used the Rainy Day Fund, arguing that the money should be reserved for true emergencies, like natural disasters. This was an unexpected argument coming from Perry, who had signed off on budgets in the past that had all but liquidated the fund. Now, however, he insisted that legislators close the gap by cutting spending to the bone.

And they did. Legislators slashed funding for the 2012–2013 public education budget by $5.4 billion. For the first time since World War II, the state failed to fund enrollment growth in Texas schools. The effects were immediate. Ten thousand teaching positions were eliminated. State law requires a ratio of 22 students to 1 teacher in the early grades, but districts increasingly found that standard impossible to meet. The number of schools receiving waivers from that requirement tripled between 2010–2011 and 2011–2012.

The cuts were unpopular, especially in rural and suburban districts, many of which are represented by Republicans. This perhaps helps explain the steady stream of obfuscation that has flowed from Perry’s office over the significance of the cuts, which continues to this day. Perry told reporters at a press conference last year, for example, that state spending on public schools grew at three times the rate of the enrollment increase between 2002 and 2012. But this is true only if you fail to adjust for inflation—a particularly facile gimmick—or account for the tax swap of 2006, which shifted some of the local funding of schools over to the state. The truth is that state aid declined by 25 percent during that period. Texas now ranks forty-seventh in the nation in spending per pupil.

Texas adds around 80,000 school-age kids annually, so nothing is more important than a well-funded public education system. And ours is an increasingly difficult population to educate. Statewide, roughly 16 percent of kids in public schools are not fluent in English, and the problem is more acute in urban areas: in Dallas, one in three public school students is not fluent. 

How have the schools been performing under Perry? There have been a few encouraging signs. The graduation rate seems to be improving. Perry likes to tout a recent assessment that found that Texas has the fourth-highest rate in the nation, with 86 percent of our kids graduating. But these figures should be taken with a grain of salt. Another ranking that came out at about the same time used a different methodology and found that Texas was in the middle of the pack, at 79 percent. For Hispanic students, who now make up the majority of public school enrollment in Texas, the dropout rate remains scandalously high—33 percent by one measure. Researchers chalk that up to a variety of factors, but a lack of commitment to quality bilingual education in Texas is at the top of almost every list. Perry has been largely silent on that subject. 

In general, scores on state-administered standardized tests gradually improved during Perry’s tenure, at least until the state changed to a new testing regime (known as STAAR) in 2012. But many experts believe that such trends have less to do with mastery of the content than with students’ and teachers’ growing familiarity with a given test. More tellingly, Texas has not fared well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Between 2002 and 2013, we fell eleven spots in the nationwide ranking for both fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading. In 2000 our fourth graders’ math scores ranked seventh out of 41 states, plus the District of Columbia. By 2013, when all 50 states plus the District of Columbia were tested, we had fallen all the way to twenty-sixth. It is true that black and Hispanic students in Texas have outscored those in New York and California in both fourth grade and eighth grade, the two grades in which the NAEP is administered. But these scores have to be taken with a healthy dose of salt as well. Texas exempts students—citing language deficiencies or cognitive disabilities—from taking the NAEP at a much higher rate than any other large state (on the fourth-grade reading test, for example, Texas’s exemption rate was twice the national average). There has been no improvement on SAT scores during the Perry era. 

And how about those STAAR tests? Perry is a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of high-stakes testing, and he seems to have been caught unawares by just how despised the tests had become. A simmering grassroots rebellion finally boiled over in 2012, when a group of suburban parents demanded relief from the testing regime. With Perry’s support, legislators in recent years had increased the number of tests needed to graduate from four to fifteen—higher than any other state. More than 80 percent of school boards signed a resolution opposing high-stakes testing, and prominent Republican legislators were insisting on changes. Having resisted efforts for years to scale back the program, Perry was finally forced to capitulate in the 2013 session, though House leaders worried about a veto up until the last minute. 

The governor proved that he could learn a lesson. No doubt our children could do the same, if we gave them the chance.

Quick stats:
National ranking of Texas fourth graders in math on the NAEP in 2000: 7th
In 2013: 26th
National ranking of Texas fourth graders in reading on the NAEP in 2002: 29th
In 2013: 40th

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