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Perry and the Profs

He picked the right fight.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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If you want a glimpse of the way Rick Perry operates as an executive and a politician, consider the issue of higher education reform in Texas, which no one in Texas knew was an issue until Perry decided to make it one.

Cartoon of Perry Fighting with College Professor

Thomas Fluharty

In his 30-year public career, Perry​—​how to put this delicately?​—​has shown no sign of being tortured by a gnawing intellectual curiosity. “He’s not the sort of person you’ll find reading The Wealth of Nations for the seventh time,” said Brooke Rollins, formerly Perry’s policy director and now president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market research group closely allied with Perry. At Texas A&M he majored in animal science and escaped with a grade point average a bit over 2.0. (Perry’s A&M transcript was leaked last month to the left-wing blog Huffington Post by “a source in Texas,” presumably not his mom. How his GPA compares with Barack Obama’s is unknown, since no one in higher education has thought to leak Obama’s transcript to a right-wing blog.)

Perry expends his considerable intelligence instead on using political power and, what amounts to the same thing, picking fights with his political adversaries. When Rollins came to Perry in 2007 with a radical and comprehensive proposal to overhaul higher education in the state, Rollins says the governor quickly understood the potential of the issue, not only politically but on its merits. The state operates more than 100 colleges, universities, technical schools, and two-year community colleges, organized into six separate systems. As in other states, public higher education in Texas is scattered, expensive, poorly monitored, and top heavy with administrators, even as it subjects students to often large annual tuition increases without a compensatory increase in educational quality.

Perry’s first poke at this sclerotic establishment came early in his first term. He suggested converting the money that the state gives to public colleges and universities into individual grants handed straight to students. Money is power, and Perry’s idea was to place the power in the hands of “consumers,” as he put it, rather than the administrators, to increase competition among schools and thereby lower costs and increase quality. “Young fertile minds [should be] empowered,” he said at the time, “to pursue their dreams regardless of family income, the color of their skin, or the sound of their last name.”

The higher ed establishment, led by regents of the University of Texas system, rebelled, and the legislature, well-wired with the system’s allies, agreed, and the proposal died. But Perry continued to poke. College graduation rates in Texas are unusually low, and the gaps among whites, blacks, and Hispanics are unusually high. Nationwide 38 percent of American adults (age 25-64) have a post-secondary degree; in Texas the figure is 31 percent. So Perry proposed “Outcomes-based Funding,” tying the amount of aid a school receives to the number of students it graduates. To keep a school from lowering its standards to increase its graduation rates, he suggested giving an exit exam to all students receiving a B.A. Students wouldn’t have to pass the exam to get their degree, but the information yielded by such a test​—​how much learning is going on around here?​—​would be useful, mostly to reformers. The proposal was seen, correctly, as a threat to the status quo, which has so far successfully fought it off.

The proposals Rollins brought to Perry in 2007 turned on the same themes of​—​apologizing in advance for the buzzwords​—​accountability and transparency: collecting information about how much students learn and how well schools function, and holding the schools responsible for the results. “His priority has been putting students back into the driver’s seat,” Rollins said. Perry said he hoped to apply the cost-benefit logic of business to public higher education. He incorporated Rollins’s ideas into a package of reforms and called a “higher education summit” to build support.

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