Education emerging in race between Abbott, Davis

PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Classrooms in Texas are dramatically changing in 2014. So might education politics in the governor’s race.

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis are already trading barbs over public schools, despite neither yet unveiling an education platform — signaling a potentially more intense education debate ahead than in past gubernatorial elections.

Whoever replaces Gov. Rick Perry next year inherits a public school system undergoing a major makeover: Fewer high-stakes standardized tests, more charter schools and districts restoring most of a historic $5.4 billion spending cut to classroom budgets.

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That makes it unlikely Abbott or Davis will confront education emergencies if they succeed Perry, who won’t leave office with the same legacy on public schools as predecessor George W. Bush. So instead, Abbott and Davis will duel over a future vision for Texas classrooms.

“Education is going to be a cornerstone of this campaign,” Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said.

Eager to make that impression, Abbott was scheduled to visit a San Antonio charter school Wednesday as part of a series of classroom visits statewide. Aides say he wants input from educators and students before unveiling his education platform his early next year.

Abbott won’t surrender education-first voters to Davis, who built her early political profile as a defender of education before finding the national spotlight with an 11-hour filibuster of abortion restrictions this summer.

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Her first filibuster — in 2011 — delayed the Republican-controlled Legislature’s gutting of school funding to help close a massive state budget shortfall. When she returned to the Capitol this spring, Davis was often the first Democrat on the floor questioning GOP budget writers about putting that money back.

“She’s got a strong record on public education. I think you can’t distort that record,” Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuna said. “It’s always been a focus for her. That’s a huge distinction.”

Texans ranks among the worst in the country in per-pupil funding. But graduation rates and standardized test scores are on the rise in recent years, and the state has long prided itself on preparing students for college and careers with high accountability standards.

Acuna said Davis will roll out her education policy “very soon.” Until then, Davis is using the topic to launch her biggest attacks yet.

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She sought this week to align Abbott with those who support vouchers, in which families receive taxpayer dollars to remove their children from underperforming public classrooms and enroll them in private schools. Perry has called for vouchers but will end his 14 years in office without convincing lawmakers to act.

It’s not a strictly partisan issue. This summer, the Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly approved a measure declaring that public money should stay in public schools. Rural Republicans especially tend to oppose voucher plans because their districts don’t offer many alternatives to traditional public schools.

Hirsch said vouchers are not part of Abbott’s “focus right now.”

He also addressed Davis’ campaign targeting Abbott in defending the state in the lawsuit filed by more than 600 school districts over the school funding cuts. Hirsch said Abbott had an obligation as attorney general to defend the state.

Hirsch said Abbott will make sure schools are adequately funded and, striking back at Davis, said she would “take an Obama-style approach to education in that she wants to spend more money without worrying about the results.”

Perry’s challengers in previous elections have tried elevating education as a major issue, while Texas’ longest-serving governor stuck mostly to touting a roaring state economy and fighting against federal overreach.

Call Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said he expects schools to get higher billing this time.

“Democrats will continue to run on that throughout the campaign,” Jillson said. “Whether or not Abbott continues to highlight education will depend on whether he can develop a more convincing line. If he stands for education, what does he say about the 2011 cuts?”

Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the state education board, said he believes a big priority for whoever runs the Capitol in 2014 should be keeping their hands off the reforms passed this spring.

“We’re going to have to resist the urge to undo some of the great work that was done,” Ratliff said.