by Terrence Stutz, DallasNews
Leticia Van de Putte and Dan Patrick collaborated on key education issues as state Senate colleagues a year ago. But as they near their Nov. 4 showdown for lieutenant governor, education has become a dividing line between the two.
While the candidates also disagree on other hot-button topics such as immigration and abortion, both have touted their experience on education matters while lambasting each other’s stands on school choice, student testing and education funding.
“Senator Van de Putte is turning her back on Texas students by removing the accountability measures we have in place” in public schools, Patrick, R-Houston, said of Van de Putte’s proposal to dramatically reduce student testing.
Her fire has been directed at Patrick’s support of big funding cuts for schools in 2011 and opposition to restoring the funds last year.
“Dan Patrick has shown time and time again that he does not value our neighborhood schools, and he showed that when he voted twice against Texas students,” said Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.
The topic is likely to be a flashpoint between the two Monday night, when they’re set to meet for their only debate. But it was much different during last year’s legislative session.
Patrick, as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Van de Putte, a longtime member of the panel, worked together on far-reaching bills that reduced high-stakes testing and revamped graduation requirements for high school students.
At a recent political forum in Austin, Patrick even mentioned that he could not remember Van de Putte voting no on any significant bills that came before his committee. He made the point to emphasize that he can work with Democrats — at least some of the time.
Still, the two nominees are hoping voters will take particular notice of their conflicting views on what is best for the state’s 5 million schoolchildren.
At campaign appearances around the state, Van de Putte has reminded voters that the school funding cuts backed by Patrick and other GOP lawmakers eliminated 11,000 teaching jobs and set instruction back in many districts.
“Thousands of teachers lost their jobs. The cuts also caused overcrowded classrooms across the state and programs that were ensuring student success were ripped apart,” she has said.
Van de Putte’s solution is to restore the lost funds next year, using a $5 billion revenue surplus that lawmakers expect when they convene in January.
Patrick contends it would be irresponsible to simply pump more money into schools without demanding additional results.
“We can’t just give them more money and let them keep doing the same things they’ve been doing,” Patrick said at a political forum this month. “We need accountability. We need improvement.”
Patrick also said lawmakers had to cut some school funding three years ago because of the huge revenue shortfall they faced.
“Republicans made a decision that it was better to take a little bit of money out of school districts’ pockets than to take money out of [taxpayers’] pockets,” he said, indicating that stories of harm to school districts were overblown. “Our schools survived, and we did fine.”
The candidates are each touting other education proposals in advance of the Nov. 4 election, which Patrick is widely expected to win, given the state’s heavy Republican tilt.
Shut out last session in his bid to provide state support for private and religious schools through tax credits for businesses that donate, Patrick is again pushing the idea in his campaign.
“We have a lot of failing schools and a lot of parents who don’t have the money to send their children to private school,” Patrick said, citing figures indicating that about 1 in 10 schools is rated unsatisfactory. “No child should be forced to go to a failing school.”
Patrick’s private school tax credit measure was bottled up by Van de Putte and other Senate Democrats in the 2013 session. But as lieutenant governor, he would have more leverage in pushing the legislation through the Senate, particularly if the chamber’s rules are changed to diminish the influence of Democrats.
Van de Putte and other Democrats remain adamantly opposed to any private school voucher system, contending it would take millions of tax dollars away from public schools at a time when they are still recovering from big funding cuts.
Patrick is also backing a new “parent trigger” law that would make it easier for parents to close a failing school. Under the proposal, the school could then be reopened or merged with another school under new leadership, including a private company.
Van de Putte has laid out a “Texas First” education plan that would expand the state’s prekindergarten program for disadvantaged children from half-day to full-day classes and limit the number of students in those classes to 22. That is the current class size limit in kindergarten through fourth grade.
The San Antonio lawmaker also wants to scale back high-stakes testing in public schools, including a reduction in the number of end-of-course exams that high school students must pass to graduate. Van de Putte wants to replace the current five tests with one exam that would measure each student’s basic skills and college readiness.
“I want to get high-stakes testing off the backs of our students … and return teachers to their primary job of teaching the curriculum” instead of focusing on test preparation, she said.
Van de Putte also wants to end annual testing of every student in grades 3-8 and the first three years of high school. She would instead do random sample testing of smaller groups of students. But such a change would not be currently allowed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test most students once a year in math and reading.
The candidates for lieutenant governor on education issues:
Dan Patrick: Favors state tax credits for businesses that donate to private and religious schools, which would then offer scholarships to students in low-rated public schools.
Leticia Van de Putte: Opposes use of state money for private schools, including vouchers or tax credits, which she says would deprive public schools of badly needed revenue.
Patrick: Supports the 2013 law that scaled back high-stakes testing in high school from 15 to five exams that must be passed to graduate. He says tests are needed to bolster the school accountability system.
Van de Putte: Voted for Patrick’s 2013 bill but wants to further reduce testing in high schools to one exam. She also wants to end annual testing of all students and instead sample-test smaller groups of students. Federal law currently would not allow Texas to drop annual exams.
Patrick: Would consider some increase in funding for schools but only if there are requirements for improved results. He has also suggested a dramatic “tax swap” that would reduce school property taxes and increase the state sales tax to replace the revenue.
Van de Putte: Wants to use the state’s expected
$5 billion revenue surplus for public schools next year. She says schools are still hurting from the $5.4 billion funding reduction lawmakers imposed in 2011. Some of the money was restored in 2013, but Van de Putte says it wasn’t enough.
Follow Terrence Stutz on Twitter at @t_stutz.
What to watch for in Monday’s lieutenant governor debate:
Republican Dan Patrick will stake out his strong position on illegal immigration early as he has done in most previous appearances on the campaign trail. He’s drawn heavy criticism for some of his rhetoric, but Patrick sees it as a winning issue.
Democrat Leticia Van de Putte is poised to keep up her attacks over Patrick’s support of big funding cuts for public education in 2011. Van de Putte’s campaign believes Patrick is vulnerable on the issue among parents and education groups.
NO PERSONAL ATTACKS
Don’t expect the personal attacks that were prevalent in the GOP primary and runoff elections. Patrick was the primary target of those attacks, which focused on his bankruptcy in the 1980s and other issues. But Van de Putte has shown no inclination to get personal.
HOW TO WIN
Van de Putte desperately needs to score points, as she is widely viewed as trailing far behind Patrick in the GOP-heavy state. Patrick needs to avoid mistakes in the lone debate he agreed to, and that probably won’t be hard for the long-time radio talk show host.