AUSTIN -- In a web advertisement launched this week, Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-TEXAS) is doubling down on his recent campaign focus on public education.
"I have a single quest, and that is to find what we need to do to elevate education in the state of Texas to be ranked number one in the nation," Abbott says in the new 60-second spot. "In search of that quest, I'm touring schools across the state of Texas."
The Republican gubernatorial candidate has hosted a series of roundtable discussions focusing on education issues, including recent stops at charter schools in San Antonio and South Texas. The campaign stops have focused on increasing the role of charter schools in creating public school competition as well as promoting the use of classroom technology.
Abbott's political opponents have seized on the education issue to shine the spotlight on the attorney general's own actions as the state's top attorney.
The Republican-led 82nd Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from schools in 2011, resulting in school districts filing a lawsuit against the state over the school finance system. Abbott's office defended the system, which a state district judge in February declared failed to meet the state's constitutional obligation to provide a free public education.
After the 83rd Texas Legislature returned about $3.9 billion to schools, 250th District Court Judge John Dietz ordered all parties in the lawsuit to determine the effects of the changes made during the 2013 session. While the lawsuit remains unresolved, Democrats have put increasing public school funding at the top of their campaign agenda for 2014.
"If we don't get serious about our education system, we can't be serious about maintaining our place in the world economy," state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) told media after filing the paperwork to run for governor in November.
As Abbott met with educators Tuesday at Spring Branch ISD's Tenchonology Training Center near Houston, Davis' campaign pointed out the same district lost 118 teachers due to 2011 budget cuts. The campaign has launched a steady drumbeat of attacks coinciding with Abbott's recent tour, accusing the Republican of sidestepping questions over whether he would have approved of the cuts if he had been governor.
"This isn't just about Greg Abbott defending $5 billion in cuts to neighborhood schools. This is about dishonesty and a total lack of leadership," Davis said in a statement Tuesday. "This is about Greg Abbott refusing time and time again to be honest with Texans. Visiting a few schools is not going to make up for the fact that Greg Abbott fought against Texas students in the courtroom.”
Abbott has defended his role in the lawsuit by saying it's his constitutional duty as attorney general to defend the state in court, while promising to adequately fund public education if elected governor.
"I can't go back and reconstruct what was done in that legislative session, which was, of cours,e two legislative sessions ago," Abbott said at a stop on Wednesday at San Antonio's KIPP Camino Academy charter school.
Abbott's team, in turn, has criticized Davis for recent trips out of state, including a meeting last week with Democratic leaders in New York. In a press release announcing the new advertisement's debut on Monday, Abbott campaign communications director Matt Hirsch compared Davis to the nation's current commander-in-chief.
"Her Obama-style approach to education of spending more money regardless of outcomes may work in New York, but it won’t sell in Texas," said Hirsch. "Greg Abbott has set his sights on making Texas’ education system number one in the nation, and he will empower parents, encourage competition and return control back to the schools in order to achieve this result."
In interviews with KVUE earlier this month, education advocates unanimously agreed that a focus on public education is long overdue. Crediting parents with pressuring lawmakers to pass sweeping testing reform during the 2013 session, Brock Gregg with the Association of Texas Professional Educators said candidates are wise to keep education issues top of mind.
"We hope to take that momentum and make sure to drive home the message of public education as the priority in the next election," said Gregg. "And I think having a real statewide race with legitimate candidates who have different views on public education will allow us to do that."