AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Before Gov. Rick Perry ratified the most sweeping changes to Texas classrooms in a decade last summer, he summoned to his office the architect behind the major reforms known as House Bill 5, frowning at parts of a testing overhaul that he never sought.
"He was certainly paying attention," Republican state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock recalled. "Now whether (education) was a major emphasis of his administration, that's for the public to judge."
Many take the view that it wasn't, but Perry's successor might make schools a clear focus.
As Perry wraps up a record 14 years on the job, Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis are both vowing to prioritize public schools if elected in November. Following through could elevate education as a signature issue in the Texas governor's office as it was under George W. Bush, before he left for the White House and used the state's testing system as the framework for the No Child Left Behind law.
Abbott last week unveiled the second part of an education plan that's now 50 pages long and still has a third installment to go. Teacher unions have criticized some of his proposals — which wouldn't extend prekindergarten in Texas to full-day — and Republican consultants point out the political calculus of a classroom-heavy campaign against a rival who's popular with educators.
Davis, a heavy underdog against the longtime Texas attorney general, has bemoaned low teacher pay and is the latest Democratic nominee to make schools the centerpiece of a gubernatorial bid. The last one, Bill White, lost to Perry in 2010 by double digits.
Education observers say whatever happens when Perry leaves in January, they're happy to see schools emerge as the dominant issue in the race.
"We just kind of lost our focus. It's not something you fix and walk away from," said Jim Nelson, who served as Texas Education Commissioner under both Bush and Perry. "We really focused hard on it in the late '90s and the early part of 2000s, and then we kind of didn't."
When Perry visited New York last week in an attempt to lasso companies to Texas, the trip epitomized his focus as governor. He cruised to re-election three times on themes of job creation and fighting federal overreach, and when he ran for president in 2012, immigration and economic growth mattered more to Republican voters than improving schools.
Under Perry, public schools were walloped by a historic $5.4 billion spending cut in 2011 and textbook approvals became battles over creationism. Texas joined many states in receiving waivers from strenuous requirements of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, but the opt-out was most symbolic coming from Bush's state.
The results of Texas public schools under Perry are mixed. On-time graduation rates have steadily climbed even as the statewide population booms, and rank by some measures among the highest in the nation. But critics point to college entrance exam scores that remain middle-of-the-pack and teacher salaries that are among the lowest nationally.
"Rick Perry is not regarded as an education governor. That much is definitely true," said Andy Rotherham, a former adviser under President Bill Clinton and co-founder of the nonprofit Bellweather Education Partners in Washington. "To the extent of what's happened in Texas, I wouldn't want to say it's happened in spite of him, but he was incidental to a lot of them."
Defending Perry's record on schools, spokeswoman Lucy Nashed pointed to a 2006 initiative that emphasized science and math and claimed that more minority students are ready for college than a decade ago.
"Having a skilled workforce is critical to Texas' future competitiveness, and the governor has focused on ensuring Texas public school students are ready for college or career after graduation," she said.
When Perry ran for lieutenant governor in the late 1990s, Republican pollster Marc DelSignore helped him create a television ad about teachers that he said tested well. But DelSignore said education tends to be a second-tier issue that appeals largely to Democrats and younger women, groups he thinks Abbott may be trying to court.
"It's typically not one of the front-line issues for Republican candidates. You have to think one of those motivations behind their research or strategy is to appeal to a subset of voters," DelSignore said.
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