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Perry's education record questioned

By EMILY GUEVARA and ADAM RUSSELL
Staff Writers
 
Tyler Morning Telegraph

Gov. Rick Perry might make a case for his presidential potential around the country, but critics in his home state question his leadership on education.

Perry has promoted a variety of education initiatives during his 10-plus years in office.

He proposed the expansion of the virtual school network to help high school dropouts earn diplomas; increased funding for science, technology, engineering and math programs; and supported the creation of the Texas High School Project designed to improve performance among low-income and at-risk students.

Despite the efforts, some educators and local political leaders said the state is failing to educate and Perry's education record won't translate well nationally.

Smith County Democratic Party Chairman David Henderson said Perry is "not prepared for primetime politics."

Aside from Perry's "down-home, Aggie" schtick becoming a liability on the national stage, Henderson said his record and model for public education presents "damning statistics" heading into the Republican primary and possible general election.

Henderson said $4 billion in education cuts this past legislative session are "bad for business."

He said Perry's decade long initiatives will cripple the state's economy because producing poorly educated students or dropouts will not build a 21st century workforce.

Perry can repeat his mantra about creating jobs, but it does not change reality, Henderson said.

"It's just plain bad for business to have an uneducated workforce. Industry is going to go where they can hire people who can do the jobs they need done," he said. "All these jobs he's created were created by the population influx and they're minimum wage jobs. I don't know how you sell that. How do you articulate a defense of ignorance?"

Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said there are two economic models the state can follow — the low road or the high road.

The high road involves becoming a strong global competitor by educating and producing highly skilled workers, entrepreneurs, and innovators, which requires investment in education but leads to good jobs, wages and benefits.

The low road, "exploitation" model, involves working for less pay than workers in developing countries.

"If Indonesia will work for 50 cents an hour, I'll work for a quarter an hour," he said. "That road is a low education, low skill road that produces crummy jobs with bad wages and benefits.

Between 2000 and 2010, more than half the child population growth in the U.S. has been in Texas, McCown said.

McCown said there is a tremendous need for education from pre-kindergarten to graduate school and the state is not meeting the need.

He said the $4 billion underfunding of education does not include $1.4 billion in cuts to programs designed to curb dropout rates and provide grants to college students.

"We're moving in the wrong direction," he said. "This was not a one-time response to a recession; this has been a policy we've had now for quite some time."

He said the state has made strides toward bringing a third tier-one research university to the state. But, he said, other comparable states have half-a-dozen major research universities.

Smith County Republican Party Chairman Ashton Oravetz said Perry can overcome the state's education performance but it will be a focus for other candidates.

Perry likely will point out the state is making improvements and has done so under his tenure, Oravetz said. The education system's failure is not limited to Texas, he said.

Oravetz, a business instructor at Tyler Junior College, said the state and national education systems are not producing students proficient in math, science, history and critical thinking. He said it will be to the detriment of the economy.

"It's killing us," he said. "We don't have the people to do the jobs that require a higher education and skill level."

State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, called Perry's higher education record "excellent" and said that he and the state were handcuffed by the Texas Supreme Court decision that changed the way public education is funded.

Berman said Texas' decades-long public education rank in the bottom third nationally is created by geography not policy.

As a border state, illegal immigrants place a burden on classrooms and programs such as bilingual education hold both legal and illegal residents back, he said.

Berman said the "no child left behind" model is not working.

"From kindergarten to third grade, a child is supposed to learn to read. Then they have to read to learn," he said. "If they can't read by third grade, they need to be held back."


Where Texas Stands
Texas eighth-graders performed below the national average in reading but above it in math, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The data is based on results from national assessments administered at selected schools every two years.

On the math test, Texas eighth-graders performed above the national average with an average scale score of 287. The U.S. average was 282, according to the data.

In reading, Texas students performed slightly below the national average with an average scale score of 260. The national average scale score was 262.

Texas graduation rates were 35th in the nation, according to an analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data. The rates are calculated using aggregate student enrollment data to estimate the size of an incoming freshman class and aggregate counts of diplomas awarded four years later.

An estimated 73 percent of Texas high school freshmen received a diploma four years later, according to the data. Wisconsin ranked first among the states with an 89.6 percent graduation rate.

The National Education Association reported Texas ranked 31st in the nation for average salaries. Texas teachers earned about $48,000 for the 2009-10 school year, according to the data. The top-ranked state in this report was New York with an average salary of $69,118.

Texas ranked 43rd among the states in terms of per-pupil expenditures in 2008-09, according to an analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data. The state spent about $8,500 per pupil that year compared with more than $17,000 per pupil in New Jersey, which ranked first.

The National Education Association, which produces rankings of the states annually, placed Texas 37th in the nation for per student expenditures in 2009-10. The state spent $9,227 per student in fall enrollment, according to the association's data. New Jersey also topped that list with almost $17,000 in expenditures per pupil.


Governor's Response
Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman, said education is a priority. More than half of state expenditures went to education this session, she said.

Perry is proud lawmakers made tough decisions necessary to keep the state living within its means, Ms. Frazier said.

"He recognizes these are challenging economic times, but our state is going to be better in the long run by living within its means, balancing its budget, and not raising taxes," she said.

Due to an uncertain national economy and potential for natural disasters, Perry believed it was in the state's best interest to preserve the balance in the Rainy Day fund, she said.

Ms. Frazier said the Teacher Retirement System of Texas has weathered a challenging economy well when compared with other funds across the nation. The governor is proud that he supported a measure to give retired teachers a one-time supplemental payment of up to $2,400 in January 2008, even though the system was not set up to provide the checks.

Ms. Frazier said almost 93 percent of Texas high school students graduated, continued their education or earned a GED in 2010, more than the previous year.

"Gov. Perry will always believe that one dropout is one too many," she said. "He will continue pursuing measures that will help reduce the dropout rate."

Because the state constitution requires a balanced budget, Ms. Frazier said, "mandatory" spending levels for education are a perception not reality. The governor continues to look for ways to reduce the tax burden because keeping that low helps to open the environment for job creation and prosperity, she said.

"In Texas, we live within our means," she said.


Still Not Enough
"Rick Perry has been a disaster for the public schools and educators," Winifred Jackson, Region 4A president for the Texas State Teacher's Association, wrote in an emailed statement.

"Whatever advances he supported in previous years, which were minimal, were wiped out in 2006, when he demanded huge cuts in local school property taxes without fully paying for them and then this year, when he demanded deep budget cuts," she wrote.

She called this year's funding the worst public education budget in more than 60 years. It's the first budget in the period that failed to fully fund school finance formulas and account for enrollment growth, she said.

Jamie Womack, a Tyler-based representative for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said legislative decisions will mean larger class sizes, less state funding for full-day pre-K and gives flexibility to furlough teachers and lower salaries.

Despite the considerable wealth in Texas, she said, the state is providing poorly for students. She said teacher layoffs could provide a wake-up call for what legislators have done.

"You can pay them to be in the classroom, or you can pay them to be in the unemployment line," she said.
Dr. Wayne Berryman, president of the Smith County Retired Teachers and School Personnel Association, said Perry has done little for retired educators.

"He's not been very supportive of legislation that we've proposed," Berryman said.

In 2009, Perry vetoed a bill approved unanimously in the House and Senate.

House Bill 2656 would have added a second retirement system member to the board of trustees for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.

Perry vetoed the legislation because it would have diluted the board's financial expertise, according to a statement on the governor's website.

The board is responsible for developing investment policy for the teacher retirement funds, the statement said.

However, Perry did sign a bill this session that opens an existing spot on the board to retired teachers without adding a member, Berryman said.

He said Perry's mantra has been and continues to be "no new taxes," so there hasn't been money available to give retired educators a pension increase in the past decade.

He criticized the governor for cutting education funding by $4 billion when more than $9 billion was available in the rainy day fund.

"If you're willing to keep that in your pocket … when there's a $4 billion shortfall, I just think you've shortchanged education," Berryman said
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