Texas Governor's Race Flags Education on 2014 Horizon

Democratic hopeful Davis touts topic in declaring run

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Texas Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis' decision to enter the state's gubernatorial race in 2014, and the emphasis placed on education in her kick-off speech earlier this month, portends the wealth of elections next year that will test the staying power of education policies pushed by Republican governors following the 2010 race.

There are only two gubernatorial elections this year—in Virginia and New Jersey—and no upcoming elections for state superintendent. But in 2014, there will be 36 gubernatorial elections. Thirty-one governors are eligible to run for re-election; seven are either term-limited or, like Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry, won't seek another term. There will also be eight states holding elections for state superintendent.

At stake will be a variety of policies affecting education, from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 2011 overhaul of collective bargaining for public employees including teachers, to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's handling of the financial crisis that has afflicted Philadelphia's public schools. (Both are Republicans.)

Many governors also could find the Common Core State Standards tricky to deal with given opposition in some states, said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center for Education Policy at George Washington University.

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, has vowed in her gubernatorial campaign to protect state funding for schools and to fight voucher proposals.
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, has vowed in her gubernatorial campaign to protect state funding for schools and to fight voucher proposals.
—LM Otero/AP

"Education rears its ugly head in elections in ways that are hard pretty to predict," she said.

K-12 Filibuster

Although Ms. Davis burst onto the national scene this year with her filibuster of a Texas bill—subsequently enacted—that places new restrictions on abortion rights, it's not the first time she single-handedly has attempted to stop legislation favored by Republicans. In 2011, she filibustered a proposed $4 billion reduction in state funds to public education through a change in the state's school funding formula. She said her filibuster ultimately led to a special session of the legislature to resolve the matter.

Ms. Davis, who was elected to the Texas Senate in 2008, highlighted that filibuster in her Oct. 4 campaign announcement, casting it as her attempt to protect the state's chronically underfunded schools.

"Making education a priority creates good jobs for Texans and keeps Texans on top," she said in her announcement.

Although the funding reduction was ultimately approved by lawmakers, Ms. Davis said in a December 2011 interview with The Texas Politics Project, an information hub on state government hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, that her filibuster led to the special session where lawmakers ultimately stopped short of agreeing to a "permanent underfunding" of K-12. She also said her filibuster would have the long-term effect of giving more prominence to voices of teachers and parents opposed to a reduced budget.

In the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers approved a $3.4 billion boost in education funding, up to a total of $52.7 billion, for the 2014-15 fiscal biennium (the Texas Legislature meets every other year), a decision that Ms. Davis also highlighted in her kick-off speech. A lawsuit opposing the 2011 cuts is making its way through the Texas legal system.

In 2009, Ms. Davis introduced a bill to provide easier access for severely autistic students to therapeutic services. But when she came to believe that the bill could be used to implement vouchers, she pulled it, recalled Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, a K-12 advocacy group that considers Ms. Davis an ally.

"She ultimately understood that the bill could be damaging to public schools," Ms. Miller said.

This year, her vocal opposition to a proposal from Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, the chairman of the Senate's education committee, to create tax-credit scholarships for private school tuition also exposed typical rifts between the parties on certain education policies. Ms. Davis argued that funds directed to private schools through the tax credits "would have otherwise gone to the public school system."

At the same time, there was strong bipartisan support this year in the Texas legislature for House Bill 5, which reduced the number of tests students are required to take, noted Matt Prewett, the founder of Texas Parents Union, a nonpartisan group. In a May statement supporting the bill, Ms. Davis said it meant teachers "will be assessing their children with far fewer tests, but with a curriculum that makes sense."

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"If you want to bridge the divide, K-12 education is a very good place to start," Mr. Prewett said.

Electoral Underdog

Ms. Davis is starting out as the decided underdog in the race, which so far also features state Attorney General Greg Abbott on the Republican side (other GOP candidates include a former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, Tom Pauken). The state government is controlled by the GOP, the state hasn't elected a Democratic chief executive since 1990, and Texas has voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 1980. Early polling shows Mr. Abbott with a lead, but many respondents said they didn't know enough about the candidates to choose a favorite.

With lingering questions about the state's K-12 funding system and new proposals likely on the way from school choice advocates, "2015 is definitely going to be a major, major education session in Texas," regardless of who wins in Texas next year, said James Golsan, an education policy analyst at the nonpartisan Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supports vouchers and parent-trigger laws.

Vol. 33, Issue 08, Pages 21, 24

Published in Print: October 16, 2013, as Texas Race Flags Education Issues on 2014 Electoral Horizon
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