Rick Perry's Manufactured Miracle

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There were other payoffs from the state's investment in education. Texas public school students made significant strides on achievement tests. "If you go back to the early 1990s," Colbert says, "there was a Rand study, the first of a number of Rand studies that indicated that Texas had basically jumped well ahead of the pack in education. If you went demographic subgroup by demographic subgroup, we were well ahead."

Texas has not remained faithful to these efforts under Perry. Lawmakers in recent years have relentlessly dialed back support for public education and devised ways to escape court-ordered revenue-sharing for poor districts. Some of the big test-score gains of the '90s turned out to be based on cheating. Still, achievement seems to be headed south. And that was all before this year.

In this year's legislative session, Perry proudly led the call for $5.4 billion in cuts to state support for public education, leaving the state education budget at $29 billion, according to an analysis by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. Before these cuts, the nonpartisan Texas Legislative Study Group placed Texas at 47th among the states in support for education, and 50th in the percentage of population 25 and older with high school diplomas.

Perry's supporters argue the cuts were necessary to deal with a two-year state budget deficit projected at $15 billion to $27 billion, depending on who's projecting. His detractors wonder why a state that's supposed to have the nation's most robust regional economy lumbers under such shortfalls. They also wonder why a supposedly healthy economy produces a poverty rate that's 20 percent higher than the national rate, according to census data released last month.

Regardless, the state's government, like state governments elsewhere, was headed for the poor farm if something didn't get cut. Perry, with strong backing from Tea Party-right majorities in both houses of the Legislature, focused on public schools with a vengeance. The state cut support for schools by $500 to $700 per student and completely gutted two areas considered vital to minority student success: full-day prekindergarten and a series of grant programs for tutoring and other special support.

In championing the cuts, Perry staved off calls to take more from the state's $9 billion "rainy day" fund, which many said was established for just such a purpose. That move lent credence to critics who believe Perry's real purpose was a Tea Party-friendly "starve the beast" strategy to diminish public education as a communal responsibility.

These cuts, all so public and brash, have actually obscured from the headlines another Perry initiative that may worry the Texas business and research communities even more.

In 2008, Perry convened a "higher education summit." At it, he unveiled his ideas to make it easier, cheaper and faster for students to graduate from the state's top-tier universities. His "seven breakthrough solutions" — actually the handiwork of a former oilman and friend, Jeff Sandefer, who has donated $300,000 to Perry's campaigns since 2000 — would forbid universities from using academic research to decide whether to grant professors tenure.

Under the plan, which is nowhere near adoption, tenure decisions would depend heavily on "customer satisfaction ratings" — grades students give teachers. A professor would have to show that he or she has been teaching at least three classes of 30 or more students every semester for seven years, earning customer satisfaction ratings of at least 4.5 out of 5 possible points.

People who feel they helped bring the Texas economy back from the debacle of 1987, even some who are friendly to Perry otherwise, are horrified by Perry's "seven points."

"To me, it's a disgrace to the tradition of scholarship and discovery," says John Sibley Butler, a professor of entrepreneurship and small business at the University of Texas in Austin and director of an institute that studies and promotes economic growth in Texas.

Weinstein, at SMU, served as a consultant in the late '80s to cities trying to attract high-tech industry. In retrospect, he says, those glad-handing recruitment campaigns probably had less to do with drawing high-tech businesses to Texas than the presence of well-funded and prestigious academic research centers.

"I think more of that has come about as a result of the research that occurs in a place like the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, which is one of the largest medical complexes in the country," he says. "UT Southwestern has probably generated a lot of spinoff activity and attracted a lot of healthcare companies to the region."

For all Perry's Texas swagger, there are simply ways in which he doesn't get Texas, says Texan Terry Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. "The reason we don't have kudzu in Texas is because researchers, not teachers but researchers at Texas A&M University, know how to stop that stuff," says Sullivan, a national fellow of the Hoover Institution who is executive director of the White House Transition Project and author of The Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff. "The reason our cattle are more productive in Texas even though they live on really crappy land is because researchers, not teachers, at Texas A&M discovered how to make cattle stronger.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze