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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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Perry’s admirers praise his sure-footedness​—​his ability to sense cultural trends before others do and turn them to his political advantage. He was the first national politician to ally himself to the Tea Party movement in 2009, a move that’s just now paying off. He caught the mounting anxiety among middle-income parents about college costs early on. Most American parents now say that a college degree will be essential for their children’s future success; at the same time, according to a new Pew Foundation poll, only 22 percent of Americans believe that most people can afford to send their kids to college. And 57 percent describe the quality of American higher education as “only fair” or “poor.” To address this anxiety Perry’s opponents offer more government subsidies, which in turn provide an incentive for schools to raise their prices​—​an attempt to douse the fire with gasoline. Perry’s ideas are cheaper, more comprehensive, more imaginative, and more likely to work.

And they have a good chance of being put into action. In late August, Perry scored another significant, if partial, victory. The University of Texas regents approved an “action plan” proposed by the system’s chancellor, who isn’t a Perry appointee. The plan is a compromise, but it incorporates many of Perry’s ideas, including some of the most radical, such as “pay for performance” and “learning contracts” between schools and their students. Amazingly, the plan has won support from both the right (Brooke Rollins’s Texas Public Policy Foundation) and left (Karen Hughes’s group). 

Reforms like these would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, before Perry picked up his stick and started poking the system until it had to respond. It’s been a remarkable display of political entrepreneurship: Create an issue, define it on your terms, cultivate public support, and your opponents, who never saw it coming, will have to go along, even if only partway​—​at first.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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