Politics makes for terrific spectator sport, and from that standpoint, political and education junkies couldn’t have been happy with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ recent decision not to run for president next year. After all, his no-go announcement curtailed the possibility of tussles with President Barack Obama over some of the great education issues of our time, most notably the role of private school vouchers.
But all is not lost. The 2012 race may still give us Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Few high-profile Republicans offer as stark a contrast with Obama on education issues as Perry, who was re-elected to a third full term in November but who was bashing White House policies well before then. The governor said last week that he’s contemplating a bid for his party’s nomination.
This isn’t meant to disparage the newsmaking potential or education policy acumen of other GOP contenders, like Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. But Perry’s dogged criticism of the White House on education stands out, particularly because it comes at a time when many Republicans—Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to name a few—have voiced praise for Obama’s school policies, in particular the federal Race to the Top program, and the president’s perceived willingness to challenge teachers’ unions.
Perry is less kind.
States across the country approved laws to pay and evaluate teachers on classroom performance, overhaul data systems and retool their academic standards, partly in an effort to secure federal funds through the $4 billion Race to the Top competition. But Perry has lambasted the program as an effort “bait states into adopting national standards,” and “undermine states’ authority to determine how their students are educated.” He has refused to allow his state to apply for the program, making it one of only a handful of states not to do so.
He has rejected the Obama administration’s support for states’ efforts to craft common academic standards, saying that Texas “would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington, virtually eliminating parents’ participation in their children’s education.” All but six states have adopted those standards, according to the most recent count.
Overall, the governor has been a major critic of federal stimulus spending, though his state has accepted billions in that aid. More recently, he feuded with congressional Democrats over $830 million in emergency federal jobs money, after Democrats attached provisions to the funds meant to ensure that the money was spent on K-12, and not diverted to other sources in Texas, which faces a major budget shortfall. (Federal lawmakers recently freed up that money to flow to the state’s schools.)
Perry would also appear to diverge from the Obama administration in his overall view of school spending—as in, how much money K-12 should receive. Texas lawmakers are currently debating a budget that would cut $4 billion from the state’s schools—reductions that district officials say would result in the loss of thousands of jobs and cuts to valuable programs. Perry has said he wouldn’t raise taxes or dig into the state’s reserve fund to add more money to the upcoming budget, as some Democrats had requested.
That’s a pretty sharp contrast with Obama. While U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said schools face a “new normal,” and will need to do more with less during the years ahead, the administration also backed the $10 billion Education Jobs Fund, meant to prevent layoffs in districts around the country. The administration also has argued that Congress should seek to protect K-12 and other programs that promote economic growth and innovation, as lawmakers prepare to carve money out of the federal budget.
Moving from the financial to cultural, probably no state has hosted as many battles over what should be taught in schools as Texas, where the the board of education has angered scientists by adopting standards criticized as anti-evolution. Others have accused the board of attempting to put a conservative slant on social studies standards. Perry, as governor, appoints the chair of the panel, who has a strong sway in guiding those discussions.
Obama-the-candidate in 2008 warned against efforts to “cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.” He’s largely avoided controversies over the teaching of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, who frustrated scientists by suggesting that evolution and creationism could be taught side-by-side in schools.
Of course, a Perry campaign for the White House would be partly defined by the issues he plays up on the stump. But should the Texan jump into the race, it seems likely that debates over the federal government’s role in education will be filling up paid advertisements, speeches, and policy statements before long.
Photo of Rick Perry from AP.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.