WASHINGTON — Even if Rick Perry can climb the presidential rung as a Lone Star state long-shot to a credible front-runner, he still faces this daunting political obstacle: shaking off a contentious education track record, education experts in his home state say.
“Things that he accomplished were always one step forward, two steps back,” Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston, said of Perry’s 14-year gubernatorial tenure.
In short, experts say Perry’s divisive and often aggressive education restructuring and combative attitude with college officials will form his Achilles’ heel as he works to maintain a second presidential bid.
After becoming governor in 2000, Perry urged Texas colleges to set caps on tuition, and he expanded higher-education access to undocumented immigrants by granting them in-state tuition.
Push back to that policy came from inside his own party.
Proponents have credited the law with helping to increase enrollment. It has yet to be repealed under Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
As Perry expanded higher education opportunities in some areas, he became an anti-government crusader in others.
Once a registered Democrat, Perry earned a reputation as a bold conservative spitfire who clashed with Austin lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“He, too some degree, ruled the legislature with a very firm hand, but not an iron fist,” said Rottinghaus, who studies the success of Texas governors and state government. “It was clear that Governor Perry called the shots.”
For years, Texas Democrats and education advocates have chastised Perry for not doing enough to open up education opportunities.
Angle said Perry’s totalitarian demeanor was akin to taking $10 from a person, handing $5 of it back and making them say “thank you.”
In 2010, Perry opted out of applying for millions of federal dollars from the Race to the Top program. At the time, he said the initiative introduced by President Barack Obama would impose too many federal mandates.
The Obama administration initiative has dedicated over $4 billion to 19 states for K-12 education reform under the program, according to the White House.
Some of Perry’s loudest critics in Texas have said he should have used the state’s rainy day fund to offset a 2011 education budget shortfall. Instead, he imposed across the board cuts and approved a $1.2 billion decrease to higher education in the 2012 budget.
But with a deluge of new GOP presidential contenders and waning popularity, Perry and his campaign advisers have pivoted on the education front.
“I know you face rising health care costs, rising child-care costs, skyrocketing tuition costs and mounting student loan debt. I hear you, and I am going to do something about it,” he told a group of supporters during his campaign launch in Addison, Texas.
In recent speeches, he hasn’t backed down from his support of providing in-state tuition for undocumented students. That may draw new flare-ups from fellow GOP presidential hopefuls.
Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed Perry’s 2012 bid but is now one of his fellow party challengers for the nomination.
During a 2011 interview with FOX News, he said he disagreed with Perry’s plan. “He and I aren’t going to agree a hundred percent on everything, but I do respect the fact that they’ve spent $400 million of Texas taxpayer dollars to help secure the border.”
Just last week, Perry received praise from a handful guests among 150 journalists and others at the National Press Club when he claimed that he helped Texas rise to second place, behind only Iowa, in high school graduation rates.
Nearly nine out of 10 – 88 percent – of Texas students in the class of 2013 earned their high school diplomas on time, according to the most recent data by the National Center for Education Statistics, which Perry cited in his speech.
But Texas actually notched a third-place finish that year, trailing Iowa’s 89.7 percent and Nebraska’s 88.5 percent. Texas tied with even with Wisconsin, according to the center.
Nationally, 81 percent of graduates in 2013 earned their diplomas on time.
The state’s ranking was unchanged from 2012, and Iowa remained first in 2012 and 2013, according to the center.
Despite widespread media coverage of his Washington speech last week, the moderate conservative former governor receives less media coverage than many other candidates and remains a blip in national polls.
There are upsides to being a GOP contender who’s languishing at the bottom of polls.
In early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, he flies just enough below the radar that he is able to steer clear of the pronounced heckling directed at Democratic and Republican front runners Hillary Clinton and Bush.
Perry’s contentious relationships in the higher-education arena could also prove to be detrimental for his fundraising plans and support in Texas.
He was known to feud with Bill Powers Jr., the embattled former president at the University of Texas-Austin, who left the post in June.
The latter has reportedly locked in television ad time in two Iowa markets.
The PACs join Americans for Economic Freedom, a “dark money” non-profit that arose out of a separate entity backing Perry’s 2012 bid.
The group can legally use the funds to pay for an election campaign without disclosure before voting ends at the polls.
Funding is down, outside influence is up and the universities were treated as petri dishes for the latest business school fad.
While some state experts say Perry doesn’t stand a chance in a presidential primary against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, others say Perry may succeed if he strategically plays up his economic development accomplishments.
Perry’s two-sided “calling card” is economic growth and job creation, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University.
“You can sell that to people almost anywhere,” he said about how Perry often points out that Texas lacks a state income tax.
UT-Austin graduate Jenifer Sarver has created a business model from Perry’s problems.
“Higher education has been under assault in the last four years of the Perry administration,” said Sarver, a principal consultant at Sarver Strategies. “Funding is down, outside influence is up and the universities were treated as petri dishes for the latest business school fad.”
Sarver is a former chief of staff to Karen Hughes, a former counselor to President George W. Bush.
To cross Governor Perry is to essentially cross the entire bureaucracy of the state
An uneven education track record is one prominent concern, but it isn’t the only skeleton in Perry’s political closet, experts say.
“He’s still not quick on his verbal feet,” said SMU’s Jillson, of Perry’s public appearances when he has been known to fumble when speaking off the cuff. “People aren’t going to get all the way to his education policy before they deal him out.”
Other political analysts have also cited the ongoing criminal case, in which Perry is accused of strong-arming Democratic rival Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, over funding for a public-corruption task force.
Even with Abbott as governor and team Perry increasingly focused on his White House bid, it is unclear how his tenure will influence state education policy.
“An undercurrent of discord against Governor Perry is that he has made a lot of public enemies,” University of Houston’s Rottinghaus said. “But nobody wants to cross him. To cross Governor Perry is to essentially cross the entire bureaucracy of the state.”
Reach Quentin Misiag at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Download photos and graphics: Perry-2.zip