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$830 Million Question

The feds denied Texas' application for $830 million in emergency education money, but who will win the public relations blame-game?
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Sometimes things are hard to explain. Like why I love Jon Bon Jovi or why carrots and peanut butter is a great breakfast option. (Don’t judge me.) Ideas that are hard to explain can be just as good as those that are simple, but ask any politicians—simple slogans are a lot easier than complicated ones. If you can defend your position in five words, you’ll likely get more votes than the guy who requires fifty.

It doesn’t necessarily lead to good policy but makes for good politics.

Take, for example, the recent news that US Department of Education denied Texas almost $830 million in federal education stimulus funds. As the Austin American Statesman reports:

“The money comes from a $10 billion emergency measure aimed at saving teacher jobs this school year. But U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, added a Texas-specific provision that complicated matters for the Lone Star State.

“Texas is the only state whose governor must assure that state education spending will hold steady for the next three years. The other states must provide that assurance for only one year.”

Essentially, there are two alternatives for placing blame. The Democrats’ option—blaming Perry—isn’t exactly concise. To explain it, Democrats must argue that Doggett added the amendment to protect Texas schools, and while the bar was indeed higher for Texas than other states, Perry ultimately chose not to comply. Doggett’s press release yesterday referred to ” Governor Rick Perry’s deliberate alteration of an application for $830 million in new federal education funding, which caused the U.S. Department of Education yesterday to reject his improper request.”

That, my friends, is a mouthful.

Now consider the Republican option—blaming the Democrats or the federal government. “Congressman, quit playing politics with Texas’ kids’ future,” Perry said last week at a Lubbock event, addressing Doggett’s amendment. “We may lose $830 million dollars because of a cheap political trick.”

That works a whole lot better as an applause line—it could fit on a bumper sticker.

The point is not which idea will yield a better outcome or who is actually to blame. (I’ll leave that to the pundits.) The question is who will win the public relations war, particularly when one side (the Republicans) has a simpler message.

I wrote a few days ago that Bill White has successfully created an education debate within the governors’ race. But this situation offers an easy way for Perry to get credit for his education credentials, particularly as the possibility of a lawsuit seems increasingly plausible. It fits in with the current anti-federal government, pro-Tea Party climate. Picture it now: Rick Perry, Texas crusader, fighting the federal government to get money for Texas school kids.

Now, folks can certainly defend Doggett’s efforts, and in fact a good number of people have. After all, as the American Independent reports, last session lawmakers used $3 billion in federal education funding to plug holes in the budget, rather than starting new education initiatives and programs. As Doggett’s statement pointed out, “had there been no such amendment, any money they got would have likely been subtracted from state aid (to school districts). That’s what occurred with $3.25 billion in federal support last year — leaving our Texas schoolchildren with zero additional benefit from the additional federal funding.” The Texas AFT, a state teachers’ union, sent out an press release titled, “Governor’s Ploy Triggers Rejection of State Application for Education-Jobs Funding-Not the Last Word.” But even that requires reading more to understand exactly what happens.

I know, I know. If people step back, there’s two sides to this argument. But most voters are better at picking witty bumper stickers than hearing complex argument. Take it from someone who’s spent much of my life defending the genius of “Wanted Dead or Alive.”