Texas Gov. Rick Perry's k-12 education record has become the Obama administration's newest piñata -- but the administration's attacks mostly paint Perry's education policies in half-true generalizations and miss some real contradictions.
The criticism began Thursday, when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unloaded on the newest GOP presidential contender, telling Bloomberg Television that he felt "very, very badly" for Texas school children. "Texas may have the lowest high school graduation rate in the country," Duncan asserted.
Over the weekend, Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary and current outside administration advisor, piled on: "I think when it comes to someone like Rick Perry, they're [voters] going to wonder why a place like Texas has one of the worst education systems," Gibbs said on Sunday's "Meet the Press."
But Texas's educational achievement record is more complex than Gibbs and Duncan make it sound, and their claims depend on carefully-chosen data.
On one hand, math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress test have increased, and Texas students have performed relatively well under Perry's watch -- though progress has stalled recently. On the other hand, NAEP reading scores are relatively low, and Texas leads the country in the number of adults without high school diplomas. And while Texans scored slightly below the national average on the 2011 ACT, few of those students are college-ready.
When asked for clarification on what Duncan meant by saying Texas "may have" the nation's lowest graduation rate, a spokeswoman said she could not comment further. Texas's technical graduation rate may indeed be the nation's lowest, but that figure includes students of all ages who have not completed high school. The state's freshman completion rate is average, and Texas ranked seventh out of the 26 states that reported their four-year on-time graduation rates for 2009.
"Texas is mid-pack on graduation rates, and that's no great shakes," said Andy Rotherham, a former Clinton policy aide who now works as a partner at the think tank Bellwether Education Partners. "The bigger story is that Perry hasn't done anything on education."
Under Perry's watch, Texas's curriculum wars made national headlines with stories about the state's conservative school board arguing over textbook content. Perry himself received attention late last week for saying intelligent design is taught alongside evolution in Texas public schools. That statement flew in the face of a 1987 state Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the practice. Still, Perry's gaffe was more a statement on values than an education policy pronouncement.
While Perry has condemned the federal government's role in public schools, he does not seem to have a highly-articulated education policy of his own. His campaign website does not list education as an issue. Members of his staff did not return requests for comment.
Perry's gubernatorial website points to several small initiatives: teacher incentive pay, school supply reimbursement, teacher mentoring and increasing standards. But Texas education leaders say they wish Perry had articulated broader education positions.
"I couldn't point out a signature education policy but I give [Perry] credit for letting things play out over time and letting them get better," said Michael Marder, a professor at the University of Texas who runs a teacher preparation program that receives state funds. A lack of coherent education policy is inconsequential, he says, as long as the numbers are relatively good.
Ed Fuller, a long-time Texas education researcher, is less charitable. "If [Perry]'s going to run around claiming that he's done something good, the numbers don't show it," Fuller said. "Fourth grade math flattened out; we're not making improvements -- it's taking a while to translate into the eighth grade."
"He's done nothing," said Linda Bridges, who heads Texas's arm of the American Federation of Teachers.
JUMPING OFF THE FUNDING CLIFF
Budget cuts may end up the education legacy of Perry's governorship; Texas education observers predict that the school system is about to fall off the edge of a funding cliff.
During a special session to reform school funding in 2005, Perry said, "I cannot let $2 billion sit in some bank account when it can go directly to the classroom," according to his website. But the governor had no problem underfunding Texas's schools by $5.5 billion this legislative session, despite access to a $9.4 billion rainy-day fund. That move, some education advocates say, threatens to foil the subtle gains Texas students have made in recent years.
And while Perry touts job creation on the campaign trail, thousands of Texas education employees stand ready to lose their jobs because of the cuts.
The worst is yet to come, says Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst at Texas's Center for Public Policy Priorities. Her think tank predicts a loss of 49,000 education jobs over the next two years.
"Federal stimulus money softened the blow this year," she said. "Next August will be worse. There will be cuts to dropout prevention, teacher pay, incentive pay, math and science labs and grants for pre-K. A lot of education initiatives done in earlier years will be gone now."
Texas now ranks 47th nationally in what it pays for each student's education. "[Perry's] goal is to make Texas the 99-cent store of states," said Scott Hochberg, a Democratic state representative. "You're going for cheap."
It's about to get cheaper. The state swapped its heavy reliance on property taxes for a new business tax in 2006, despite the Republican comptroller's warning that the flip would lead to a budget shortfall. Since then, Texas school funding -- and the state budget in general -- has been unsteady.
This budget session, the legislature responded to pressure from Perry and did not fund enrollment growth in schools, despite an increase of 80,000 students. According to Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, "[Perry] did this almost single-handedly, blocking the disuse of the rainy day fund with veto threats."
According to Bloomberg News, "Perry cut $15 billion from spending [over time] and shortchanged [students] by about $4 billion from previously mandated levels rather than raise taxes."
To Cody Wheeler, a music teacher at a Louis Elementary School in Houston, Perry's education policies will be apparent for the incoming class. Last year he had 26 students, but budget cuts have forced his district to lay off some teachers. "This year, I'm going to have a class of 35 kindergartners every day," Wheeler said. "That'll be pretty challenging."
Bush, Perry's predecessor in Texas, made education a major issue while leading both the state and, later, the country.
"Governor Bush was making public education a priority," said Hochberg. "Perry's education initiatives in k-12 have been limited to things like announcing that he was going to provide some teachers help to buy school supplies to their classrooms and then never funding it."
With Bush as president, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal education law that requires accountability and test reporting among school districts and ties federal education funding to set performance standards.
Perry attacked NCLB in his book, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington," in a chapter titled "Federal Intervention in Education":
[J]ust like the spending hook used to induce compliance for seat-belt and drinking-age laws, the federal government reaches into our pockets, takes out wads of dollars, and then says that we can have them back only if we comply with federal instructions.
Perry also showed his states' rights principles in his resistance to participating in
Obama's Race to the Top, a grant program that had states compete for federal education funding in exchange for agreeing to implement adminstration-sanctioned reforms. "Texas knows how to best educate our students," Perry said.
He echoed that that point in "Fed Up," writing, "The academic standards of Texas are not for sale. We will retain our sovereign authority to decide how to educate our children."
But critics say Perry's funding decisions undermine any boasts of enhancing student learning. Instead, Texas kids are coming of age in an under-resourced school system that might be unable to prepare them to enter the workforce.
"If students are in underfunded schools, they'll never get ahead," DeLuna Castro said. "When they grow up, they'll be unable to pay taxes, too. It's a cycle. You've got to prepare them for that."