Threading the Needle on Education

The trench warfare of the 2014 gubernatorial election has recently turned to education, as Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis lob proposals and criticisms back and forth. Normally in American politics, education tends to be a reliably Democratic issue. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, as George W. Bush showed with No Child Left Behind in 2000. However, it’s most often the case that if voters are deciding an election based on education, Democrats possess a built-in advantage.

But this is Texas, and right now, Abbott is actively seeking to weaken Davis on an issue long expected to be her strength. As expected, Davis has made education a centerpiece of her campaign, tying Abbott to cuts in the education budget and proposing incentives for prospective teachers and funding for full-day pre-K programs that she would fund out of “surplus revenue.”

Abbott’s latest ads also call for pre-K programs with lofty, if very long-term, goals, and a much lower price tag. That approach facilitates the Republican’s characterization of Davis as a big-spending Democrat, typified by the Abbott attack spot featuring a rolling price tag that tops out somewhere in excess of $16 billion (that’s right — billion, with a B).

Attitudes on education captured in the last three years of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll suggest that while there is, not surprisingly, support among Democrats for Davis’ proposals, Abbott’s approach might be an effective one in this campaign. Looking at public opinion and public policy on education over the last three legislative sessions, we find that while most Texans believe that money is a necessary ingredient in the education fix, they have shown a consistent unwillingness to spend on education when that spending comes into direct conflict with other priorities — a dynamic readily highlighted during legislative sessions.

On the surface, there are reasons Democrats might continue to think that education provides part of the winning formula for Davis, and could put Abbott at a disadvantage. Provided with minimal context, Texans link spending to improving the public education system. Among a battery of education proposals in our February 2014 poll, 74 percent of respondents said that increasing teacher pay would be an effective means of improving the education system, including 87 percent of Democrats and, perhaps surprisingly, 65 percent of Republicans. Even a majority of Tea Party Republicans — 52 percent — said that increased teacher pay would be an effective means of improving public education. Increasing overall public school funding was thought to be effective by 68 percent of registered voters. Here, the partisan gap was larger: 89 percent of Democrats thought that increased funding would be effective, while only 51 percent of Republicans agreed. These proposals equaled or outpaced all the other options in terms of their perceived effectiveness, save for a proposal that would create more incentives for individuals to choose teaching as a profession.

However, the proposals in the education battery were just that — theoretical propositions bereft of any information about economic trade-offs like new sources of revenue or reduced spending in other areas. A look at public opinion over a longer period, capturing attitudes during the legislative session, shows how voter preferences on education during election season change in the context of real policy trade-offs. This underlying dynamic, which isn’t as apparent in the seemingly broad support for spending in the February 2014 UT/TT poll, becomes clear in the responses to various education questions asked during previous legislative cycles.

In 2009, the Legislature was saved from making major budget cuts due to, ironically, federal assistance from the much-maligned Obama stimulus package. In the 2011 session, the Legislature was forced to make some difficult, deferred choices and cut approximately $5 billion from public education. At the time, support for those cuts wasn’t overwhelming. Over the course of that legislative session, between 15 and 18 percent of Texans supported cuts to public education, roughly 40 percent supported cuts to pre-K and approximately 34 percent supported cuts to teacher and state employee retirement programs. Republicans were slightly more willing than Democrats to make these cuts: 57 percent of Republicans expressed a willingness to cut pre-K funding, making that their most popular choice among options to cover a budget shortfall.

The 2013 session was presaged by a discussion of how to spend “extra money,” especially after it came to light that the comptroller’s budget projections had underestimated revenue by approximately $9 billion. At the outset of the legislative session, in February 2013, we asked respondents what the Legislature’s priority should be and gave them a number of options, including “restoring cuts to education and human services,” in addition to “limiting government with no new spending and no new taxes,” “lower[ing] property and business taxes” and “providing funds for infrastructure needs.” In this instance, despite the deep cuts to education in the previous session and the seemingly available funds to restore those cuts, the plurality choice was to limit government with no new spending or taxes — chosen by 32 percent of registered voters. Among partisans, a slight majority of Democrats chose restoring the 2011 cuts, while 70 percent of Republicans chose to either limit government (51 percent) or lower property and business taxes (19 percent).

Democrats and Republicans alike may see spending as an effective route to improving public education, but when it comes to making policy choices, limited government and tax cuts are a higher priority, especially among the more numerous Republican voters of Texas. Even on education, Abbott enjoys the advantage that comes from running as a Republican in a state with a conservative electorate.

Both Davis and Abbott are speaking to their bases on the issue, with Abbott hedging toward the fiscal priorities that have traditionally driven politics in the legislative process. Davis continues to speak to the Democrats who seem to embrace an open-ended commitment to public education, while calling Abbott’s recent interest into question and taking advantage of every possible opening on the issue. Abbott, meanwhile, continues to appeal to Republicans who maintain limiting government as a top-priority by exploiting Davis’ reluctance to put a price tag on her own proposal.

Whatever the outcome of the gubernatorial election, when the Legislature gets back to town in 2015, there will be a notebook full of campaign-generated proposals on the table. Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick continues to push for a school voucher program, and comptroller candidate Glenn Hegar’s support for abolishing the property tax (the key funding mechanism for public schools) has made public education an issue in that campaign as well. All of that could be reset, of course, if the courts decide in pending litigation that the current school finance system is illegal and force lawmakers to fix it. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time everyone shrugged their shoulders and blamed judges for tying their hands.

In the meantime, the discussion of education in the gubernatorial campaign will continue to be driven by the candidates’ efforts to appeal to an electorate that, at the end of the day, embraces spending on education — so long as it isn't required to pay for it.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at