Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Higher Education Coalition attack on Perry raises eyebrows

William Lutz | Lone Star Report

The Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education – a group that supports higher education reform ideas offered by the state’s university presidents and chancellors and has expressed concerns with some higher education reform ideas offered from outside academia – fired a rhetorical howitzer at Gov. Rick Perry yesterday. Political observers in Texas are left wondering why the organization chose to attack Perry by name and how this will play out.

The coalition’s main communications consultants used to work for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former president George W. Bush, two elected officials whose political interests have not always aligned perfectly with those of Perry. A member of the coalition’s operating committee, former ambassador and Higher Education Coordinating Board Chair Pamela Willeford, said she has supported Perry, and the organization is bipartisan and is about higher education, not partisan politics. She also said that decisions about what statements to issue are made by the organization’s operating committee, not its consultants.

Wednesday, the University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl issued a report blasting “7 Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education” proposed by Texas philanthropist Jeff Sandefer and supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The coalition issued a statement supporting the report and calling on elected officials to distance themselves from the 7 Solutions.

Perry’s communications director Mark Miner issued a statement expressing disappointment that University of Texas administrators are so resistant to the governor’s cost control and reform ideas. "University faculty and their allies should join the reform efforts and recommend ways to innovate, improve graduation rates, and enhance accountability and efficiency at Texas colleges and universities,” Miner said. “We all have an obligation to meet the needs of Texas students, employers, taxpayers and our fast-growing economy. Resisting reform and accountability is an unsustainable recipe for mediocrity and stagnation. Texas deserves better."

Some Austin observers thought that finished that story.

But then on Thursday, the Coalition sent out a response to Miner’s statement that has grass-roots conservatives scratching their heads. The statement both attacks Perry by name and also attacks the Texas K-12 education system. This marks one of the first examples of this higher education debate, which previously centered on TPPF and comments made by University of Texas Regent Gene Powell, venturing into K-12 education. The attack on Perry and his K-12 education record comes right as conservatives nationwide are encouraging the governor to throw his hat into the presidential ring.

“It's unfortunate that the same week that the University of Texas at Austin’s President Powers announced a major initiative to improve college graduation rates, Governor Perry's spokesman chose to denigrate Texas universities rather than support their efforts to improve and reform,” read the Coalition’s statement forwarded to the press by Julie Shussler, a public relations official with the firm of Burson-Marsteller.“… If Governor Perry truly wants to reduce costs and improve productivity of higher education in Texas, he should start by focusing on improving the college readiness of Texas students. Unfortunately, Texas ranks a dismal 36th in the nation for high school graduation rates and 50th for percentage of Texans with a high school diploma. Today, Texas taxpayers are being double-charged—first to fund high school, then to fund remedial programs when students are unprepared to succeed in college.”

Willeford said the coalition worked hard to recruit a bipartisan base of support and that the group is focused on higher education. "Volunteers have come forward because they believe the discussion and the process is not what we want it to be," Willeford said. "I think that trying to throw it into a political statement; it's just not true."

When asked about the statement attacking Perry by name and why it was issued, Shussler replied, “The statement was a response from the Coalition, which includes more than 200 leading Texans, including many supporters of Governor Perry, who are concerned about the negative impact of some of his higher education proposals.”

Some grassroots conservatives are troubled. “I know that Perry’s uncompromising commitment to fiscal and social conservatism doesn’t always sit well with some of the more moderate members of the Republican Party,” said State Republican Executive Committee member Jason Moore, a talk radio talk show host on KWEL in Midland. “But I’m surprised that some of the business leaders who have joined this coalition would condone these kinds of cheap shots at Perry.”

Most of the coalition’s press releases are distributed by Jenifer Sarver, who used to work on Hutchison’s staff. Sarver is chief of staff to Karen Hughes, who used to work for Gov. and later President George W. Bush. Both currently work at the Austin office of Burson-Marsteller.

Willeford said that the Burson-Marsteller firm is a paid consultant to the coalition. “As far as what is put out by the coalition and what is posted on our website, all that goes through our operating committee,” she said. Willeford said the operating committee included herself, C. Patrick Oles, Jr., Kenneth Jastrow II, Melinda Hill Perrin, Gordon Appleman, and Charles W. Matthews. Willeford later added that “I have supported the governor [Perry] as long has he’s been running. “

But some Republican activists hope that this coalition will avoid messages that might be perceived as political attacks. “I sure hope that this coalition doesn’t allow former staffers for Hutchison and Bush to use the organization to attack Perry personally by name or harm his presidential chances in any way,” said Toby Marie Walker, a tea party activist in Waco, Texas. “Given the problems President Obama has created for our nation, the stakes are too high for that.”

When asked directly whether Perry’s presidential ambitions had anything to do with the statement the coalition issued attacking Perry by name, Willeford said, “Absolutely not. We are a group that is concerned with the debate about higher education and the direction higher education is going. We want to be sure that it’s a transparent process, as far as ideas that are being brought forward, and that is our focus.”

LSR also asked Willeford about the organization choosing to highlight the shortcomings of Texas’s K-12 education system. After all, when Hughes worked for Bush, she was one of the most passionate defenders of the state’s K-12 education system. (For example, Hughes told The New York Times Oct. 25, 2000: “indisputable independent data all show without a doubt that Texas leads the nation when it comes to improving student performance.”)

“This is a statement by the coalition. This is not a statement by Karen Hughes,” said Willeford when asked about whether a coalition whose communications consultant is Karen Hughes is in a position to highlight the shortcomings of the state’s public schools.

“We talked about K-12, because a lot of the problems that we have in higher education as far as graduation rates [are because] we’re getting kids [who] are not prepared coming into the system, and it’s taking a lot of remedial education,” added that she hoped the governor will focus on improving college preparation.

Later, LSR asked why – given that much of this debate has focused on the University of Texas at Austin – did the coalition choose to talk about the high number of students in developmental education. (State law requires students who do not achieve college-ready test scores to take developmental courses.)

Community colleges have many students in developmental education. But UT accepts only the best from Texas high school students. According to the School of Undergraduate Studies annual report, a mere 83 UT students required assistance in 2010 for failure to meet state college readiness standards.

“We’re talking about all of higher education in the state,” Willeford said, noting that Miner’s statement referenced the statewide four-year graduation rate, not the University of Texas at Austin graduation rate, which is substantially higher.

Many grass-roots conservatives, meanwhile, are praising Perry for taking on the higher education bureaucracy. “Those of us who are attending our state's universities or who have recently graduated know that our current system of higher education is morally bankrupt,” said Tony McDonald, senior vice president of the Young Conservatives of Texas. “The system puts undergraduate education on a back-burner in favor of the mass publication of largely useless scholarly articles. The system consumes large sums of tax revenue, while saddling graduates with massive student-loan debt. It is refreshing to see Governor Perry take the bold step of calling out our universities and demanding that they implement reform and accountability measures which will serve to protect both students and taxpayers.”
Here’s one thing we do know: the Coalition, and its supporters some of whom are prominent members of the Texas business community, has upped the ante by singling out Perry by name and responding to his chief spokesman in that manner.

\When asked about this issue by LSR, the governor’s office replied that the purpose of the statement was merely to underscore the governor’s priorities for Texas public colleges and universities. “[The governor’s plan] for higher education is to improve accountability, affordability, transparency, and accessibility,” said Catherine Frazier with the Governor’s Press Office. “Where we are right now is not cutting it … The governor is simply calling on university leaders to adopt these goals and work towards finding the best way to accomplish them for their respective universities. And he will continue holding those universities accountable to pursuing those goals until progress is made.”

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