Texas Educators Take Up Call to Run for Legislature

By Linda Jacobson — February 21, 2006 6 min read
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Sherrie Matula, a teacher in Pasadena, Texas, has more than a classroom of 5th graders inspiring her to run for the state legislature this year.

The last words of her dying father, a 37-year educator in Austin, also ring in her ears as she prepares to take on a Republican lawmaker who hasn’t been opposed since 2001. “He said, ‘Give ’em hell. They do not know what they’re doing,’ ” Ms. Matula remembers.

Feeling the same as her father about the members of the Texas legislature, the Democrat is running for the Houston-area House seat. Neither she nor her opponent, Republican John E. Davis, has a challenger in the March 7 primary, and will face off in the Nov. 7 general election.

Ms. Matula, who teaches at Mae Smythe Elementary School and is retiring this year after 25 years in the profession, is one of more than two dozen candidates running for the GOP-controlled legislature who have backgrounds in education. Some are teachers, some are former administrators, and others have served on local school boards.

While they all say they want to improve the state’s education system, many are responding to an organized drive to recruit educators for this year’s races to fill 31 Senate seats and all 150 seats in the House of Representatives. In many cases, the newcomers are Republicans targeting fellow Republicans.

“Representative democracy is not working, and that has made a lot of people frustrated,” said Carolyn Boyle, the chairwoman of Texas Parent, a political action committee. She formed the group last year with school board members and parents as a way to recruit candidates and, she hopes, “elect some new talent.” Ms. Boyle is the former coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools, a statewide group which is opposed to school vouchers.

“We’ve got a great war going on,” Richard Murray, the director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston, said of the upcoming legislative elections. “It’s a fascinating and very different situation that we have.”

Fiscal Frustration

The issue that has drawn many candidates from education into the fray is the way Texas legislators have handled—or failed to handle—the state’s school finance system. Last year’s session ended without an agreement on a new tax structure to pay for schools. Then, in December, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state’s property-tax system unconstitutional. (“Texas School Finance Ruling Draws National Attention,” Dec. 7, 2005.)

“The legislature has had two regular sessions and three special sessions, and they have failed and failed and failed,” Ms. Boyle said.

School board member Anette Carlisle of Amarillo, Texas, center, stands for the Pledge of Allegiance during a candidate forum last week. Educators and local school officials unhappy with the state's handling of school finance and other issues are running for the legislature.

While school finance is their main issue, many of the aspiring lawmakers are also concerned about other matters, such as teacher shortages and what they see as a lack of flexibility in the classroom caused by state mandates on curriculum and assessment.

“They think, ‘I can probably do a better job than [the incumbents]. Give me a crack at it,’ ” said Donna Haschke, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Ms. Matula, a member of the TSTA board of directors, said she is concerned, for example, about the increasing emphasis on student testing and opposes teacher pay-for-performance programs.

Others are running in part because they detect hostility toward teachers and public education among some legislators.

Some challengers—and not just Democrats—contend that Speaker of the House Tom Craddick and other Republicans show more interest in policies such as vouchers and teacher incentive pay than in helping public schools succeed.

“Not only have they not accomplished what they needed to, they have actively tried to hurt public education,” said Anette Carlisle, a 10-year member of the Amarillo school board who is challenging Rep. David Swinford in the GOP primary. “This gives me an opportunity to use my skills at a possibly more influential level.”

Republican ‘Fissure’

In many states, education groups are aligned with the Democratic Party, but that’s not the case in Texas, said Mr. Murray, of the Center for Public Policy.

Instead, a “fissure” has formed in the Republican Party between those who think public education is full of waste and those who say, “ ‘We have to get more money for the schools,’ ” Mr. Murray said.

A lot of Republican families, Mr. Murray added, have moved into growing suburban neighborhoods because of the public schools and have “zero interest in vouchers.”

Anette Carlisle, with back to the camera, talks with potential voters at a candidate forum on Feb. 13. A school board member in Amarillo, Ms. Carlisle is challenging a state legislator in the Republican primary scheduled for March 7.

While vouchers are regularly debated in Texas, and backed by the Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, the legislature has not adopted a voucher program. But vouchers are becoming an issue in this year’s elections. A wealthy San Antonio businessman, James Leininger, has donated more than $1 million to the Republican primary campaigns of candidates in favor of vouchers.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Webster, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Texas, doesn’t deny that the current leaders have been unable to resolve the school aid dilemma. “I don’t think you’d find a Texan that disagrees with that,” she said.

Rep. Swinford insists state lawmakers have “not turned their backs on education,” and have increased per-pupil spending in recent years.

Mr. Swinford, a former vocational education teacher who has been a House member for 15 years, noted that the state supreme court has given the legislature until June 1 to pass a new school finance bill, meaning that the 2006 challengers, even if elected, won’t be able to do much about their biggest issue.

Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Perry’s re-election campaign, said it’s too soon to speculate on how some of those candidates might affect the governor’s campaign. But he finds it somewhat “hypocritical” for candidates representing the “education establishment” to complain that legislators didn’t do anything.

After all, groups representing teachers and administrators opposed the school finance bills that were proposed, he said.

“They would not sit down with the leadership in the House and Senate to work out a plan,” he said.

Call to Serve

Moving from a local post in education to state office is not unusual, said Michelle Exstrom, a senior policy specialist at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Teachers and administrators often serve in legislatures. For school board members in particular, running for the legislature is “sort of a natural steppingstone of where to go … if you’re interested in continuing to affect education policy,” Ms. Exstrom said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Murray said that the number of Texas legislative candidates with education backgrounds is larger than usual this year.

The creation of Texas Parent, which has set a fund-raising goal of $250,000 to contribute to candidates’ campaigns, is one explanation for the large number of education candidates.

“All kinds of things have converged at one time,” Ms. Boyle said.

And Bob E. Griggs, a former local schools superintendent and a Republican member of the House, sent a letter last summer to district superintendents in which he practically pleaded with school administrators to run for office.

Since being elected in 2002, he wrote, he has “witnessed and battled a misguided and widely held belief in the legislature that established educators are the problem with education and that the system cannot be fixed without wiping the slate clean.”

He added, “I am asking you to answer the call to serve at the state level of behalf of your communities and the children of Texas.”

One former superintendent who has sought Mr. Griggs’ advice is Charlie Williams, a 38-year veteran educator who serves on the school board of the 1,300-student Van Alstyne Independent School District, north of Dallas.

“Somebody had to do something,” said Mr. Williams, who will run in the GOP primary, adding that he felt his local representative “just rubber-stamped whatever the party line was.”

But just because someone has experience in education doesn’t mean that he or she will be endorsed by Texas Parent, the PAC Ms. Boyle chairs. Rep. Griggs urged those who answered his call to use Texas Parent as a resource.

“We are looking for people who are supporters of public education, but are also leaders in their communities,” she said. “We want well-rounded leaders.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Texas Educators Take Up Call to Run for Legislature


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