by Morgan Smith, Texas Tribune
Less than two months before the March 4 primary, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for governor, can often be found on the campaign trail discussing an issue other statewide Republican candidates have mostly avoided: an overhaul of public education.
Abbott has devoted the last six weeks to a series of campaign stops at schools, where he has held round-table discussions on topics ranging from charter school growth to virtual learning. Education was also a focus of a keynote address early this month before the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy group.
Education is also a frequent talking point for Abbott’s expected Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis. Her campaign’s first major policy initiative was a package that included a college-loan forgiveness program for prospective teachers and a call to raise pay. She has since unveiled another proposal focused on college preparation and completion rates.
As each candidate tries to lay claim to voters who care about public schools, a clear division is emerging in their policy proposals — and in the interest groups that support them.
Before her filibuster of abortion legislation last summer, Davis was better known for a 2011 filibuster of $5.4 billion in state budget cuts to public schools. She is a favorite of the teachers’ associations — her campaign recently received a $125,000 donation from the American Federation of Teachers — that have tended to dominate state education politics.
“I think there is a stark difference between these two candidates. Wendy has been at the forefront of trying to support and bolster the traditional public education system,” the president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, Linda Bridges, said. “Greg Abbott is about charter schools and the privatizing of education. Those are the two opposite ends of where we are in Texas right now.”
Abbott has not gained similar support from teachers groups, but his focus on charter schools and virtual education could win him favor with other education advocates.
Those issues are among the policy priorities of a new political action committee, Texans for Education Reform. So far, the PAC, which has nearly $1 million in the bank, has donated only to state legislators. It has not decided who will receive its support in the governor’s race or any other statewide contests, a spokeswoman said.
While Abbott has not released details of his education policies, he has praised changes that the teachers’ groups have traditionally opposed, like charter school expansion and fewer state-level regulations, many of which deal with areas like hiring and firing.
“We are looking at what works and what doesn’t,” he said in his Jan. 10 address.
In that speech, he said he wanted to ensure more freedom for parents to choose their children’s schools and for principals to lead their campuses without state interference. He has also questioned the feasibility of Davis’ plan to increase the supply of teachers, saying it would impose more public school costs and mandates on the public school system.
In response, the Davis campaign has emphasized her long involvement in education — and attacked Abbott for his role as attorney general in a lawsuit brought by more than two-thirds of Texas’ school districts, which say the state has underfunded them.
An Abbott campaign spokesman, Avdiel Huerta, said Abbott would continue his education roundtables across the state on the merits of digital learning, charter schools and “returning genuine local control to schools.”
His goal, Huerta said, was “to make Texas’ education system No. 1 in the country.”