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In Another Blow to Public Schools, Hochberg Leaving Legislature

Facing major education challenges next session, the House will have a tough time replacing its education expert.

Scott Hochberg was none too happy that everyone called him a nerd. “You can’t think of something to call me?” he groused more than once. But it was hard to think of anything else to call the state legislator with his messy white hair, glasses and encyclopedic knowledge of school finance law. In a House chamber of cheerleaders and quarterbacks, he often proved that knowing the facts and doing your homework could actually bring power and influence. As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the vice chair of the Public Education Committee, Hochberg seemed a living example of Revenge of the Nerds.

Until last session, when he watched helplessly as the Texas House chose to make unprecedented cuts to public education, and the leadership shut him out of school finance negotiations, making cuts less equitable across the state.

So maybe it’s not a huge surprise that today Hochberg announced he won’t seek re-election after almost 20 years in the state Legislature.

Hochberg is one of 25 incumbents so far to announce they aren’t coming back. But his decision may have the most widespread impact, particularly for education advocates. The funding mechanisms around public schools and universities are mind-boggling complicated and irrational. Hochberg was the undisputed expert on how the laws worked. He often tangled with the Texas Education Agency, following up on how policy was actually getting implemented. He spent much of his time on the floor translating and explaining the rules to less-informed colleagues. Because education has traditionally been a bipartisan area, Hochberg often had Republicans sponsoring his bills in the Senate and supporting him in the House—most notably working with Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

Last session, however, everything blew up. With an ultraconservative Republican super-majority and a $27 billion budget shortfall, things turned nasty fast. Spectators watched Hochberg’s and Eissler’s friendship implode as the two men battled on school finance plans.

Hochberg was kept out of the closed door meetings on school finance and ultimately had almost no say in the plan the House backed—a plan that cut the same percentage from all school districts, despite vast funding inequalities. He had little say on the Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers ultimately decided to cut $5.4 billion from public schools. Then, adding insult to injury, the Legislature passed redistricting maps that put Hochberg in a district with fellow Democrat Hubert Vo. While those maps have now been redrawn by federal courts, it’s hardly shocking to think Hochberg’s downtrodden.

In his announcement, Hochberg writes, “My decision should not be thought of as any commentary on the current political environment, the challenges ahead, or, for that matter, the disappointment of soon having to endure the designated hitter rule when watching hometown Houston baseball.”

But regardless of his reason, Hochberg’s departure leaves an enormous gap in education expertise—at a time when the Legislature can least afford it. The 82nd legislative session was bleak, but the 83rd will likely be worse. Next time around, lawmakers will actually have to deal with the state’s structural deficit and tax-policy problems, which means figuring out a better system to pay for public schools. Meanwhile, they’ll probably also have to figure out a new way to distribute money to the schools. School districts across Texas are suing the state in several different lawsuits around both inadequacy and inequity in funding.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is clearly the chosen member to take the reins from Hochberg, but it’s bound to be a tough job. During the session, it fell to Aycock to try, unsuccessfully, to pass a fiscal matters bill containing school finance language. While Aycock is undoubtedly smart and eager, he’s only in his third term. Hochberg had the trust of his colleagues, that he both understood all sides and would explain the policy options fairly.

The House will dearly miss its resident nerd.

Who’s Sinking Faster: Rick Perry or Dave Carney?

With news of a possible Carney demotion, you have to wonder where he's been this whole time.

Yesterday, the Perry presidential campaign pushed hard for attention around the governor’s latest endorsement: highly controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Instead, most Perry headlines focused on his double-gaffe, getting both the voting age and the election date wrong. 

Less noted, however, was a Politico blog post noting that Perry had approved yet more restructuring on his team, giving former Bushie Joe Allbaugh and Tony Fabrizio more power and leaving Dave Carney, who was the campaign’s chief strategist, to focus on New Hampshire—a state Perry is almost definitely going to lose. The campaign denies the assertions, which Politico credits to unnamed sources. But whether or not Carney’s actually been demoted hardly seems to matter. This presidential campaign has not borne any of his marks.

The common wisdom from most national outlets goes something like this: Perry has easily won every race in Texas because of his conservative Republican credentials. When he actually faced real competition—from the political Justice League of heroes that is the current Republican primary field—he got slaughtered.

Take Alec MacGillis at The New Republic:

Mixed in with all the praise for Carney I heard one cautionary note from several Austin insiders: because of Texas’ shift to one party dominance, Carney and Perry had learned to run a certain kind of campaign: appealing heavily to the narrow band of hard-core primary voters to stave off more moderate Republican challengers (like Hutchison) and then relying on the state’s Republican tilt to hold on in the general election, even if many moderate Republicans stayed home or even voted for the Democrat. It was a turnout operation, with little need for the kind of persuasion of a broader electorate that Perry would need on introducing himself to voters nationally, even just within the Republican primary. And Perry and Carney had been able to set the terms of the contest in ways that just weren’t possible in a national campaign, such as keeping debates to the barest minimum and, in his last campaign, not attending a single interview with newspaper editorial boards.

But even with its flaws, where was that turnout operation that MacGillis shrugs off? In addition to Perry’s stunningly bad debate performances and giddy speeches, the governor’s presidential campaign has also lacked the signature moxie that defined previous efforts and were largely credited to Carney.

In August, I wrote a lengthy profile of the Perry campaign’s chief strategist, a guy who’s spent much of his career in the shadows. It was hard not to be impressed with Carney’s creativity and his willingness to experiment. Central to that impression was Carney’s masterminding of the 2010 gubernatorial primary, in which Perry faced the state’s most popular elected official, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Hutchison had more money than Perry and everyone assumed the only way the governor would win would be in a low turnout primary of party faithful.

But that’s not what happened. Using data gathered by political scientists in 2006, Carney opted to spend much of the campaign’s funds on grassroots organizing. They created the “Home Headquarters” program in which those who signed up promised to recruit 11 other pro-Perry voters and get them to the polls. There was almost no money spent on phone calls, mailers or the usual campaign efforts, which the 2006 data showed to have little effect.. Similarly, Carney held off on television ads until the few weeks before the campaign—the data showed that tv only had short-lived effects and was best used to blast voters just before the election.

Certainly, there’s nothing on Perry’s current site that’s half as innovative as the Home Headquarters idea. (The 2010 home headquarters webpage is actually still live, if you want to see it for yourself.) But then, such grassroots efforts take significant time, and the Perry team got a very late start. 

But instead, the Perry campaign has gone whole hog into the very tactics that it ignored in the 2010 effort. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Perry’s made his biggest mark with television ads. In South Carolina, they’re even doing mailers.

Rick Perry has never been a great policymaker or an inspiring leader, but his campaign, with Dave Carney at the helm, has always had an innovative approach to politics and executing within the inches. Not long ago, Carney himself was frequently been compared to Karl Rove—only smarter and more cunning. 

But all of that seems laughable now. Perry’s repeated gaffes and errors have clearly been the main problem in his campaign. However, the campaign never had any strategy up its sleeve. And with Carney now focusing on almost un-winnable New Hampshire, you’ve got to assume we’ve seen everything the Perry campaign had to offer. Why not hand off the reins to some new guys?

The 2010 approach may not have won Perry a 2012 presidential nomination. But as it seems less and less likely that he’ll win the nomination anyway, one has to wonder if he—and his team—wouldn’t have preferred going down on their own ship, in their own way.

Virtual Schools, Virtually Unregulated?

After a technical switch, a virtual school gets around accountability standards

At this point, the Texas Virtual Academy shouldn’t exist.  Under the state’s accountability rules, the school should have been shut down or overhauled after failing to meet state standards two years in a row. Instead, students are enrolled now for yet another year, thanks to a loophole for-profit companies contracting with state schools can exploit.

The Texas Virtual Academy, which last year had 2,400 kids, isn’t like other schools. The full-time school, geared toward students between third and eleventh grades, differs from other public schools in two major ways. It’s online-only, meaning students take their classes over the Internet rather than in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. And though it’s paid for with public dollars, operations are managed entirely by a for-profit company, K12 Inc.

But Texas Virtual Academy is still subject to the state’s accountability system—at least in theory. The school was rated unsatisfactory the past two years, despite an intervention team from the state. Normally that would mean the school had to be overhauled or shut down.  But despite that performance, it’s still operating. In fact, not much has changed this year. The school’s website is still located on the K12 Inc. server, and the school’s teachers are still K12 Inc. employees rather than state workers.

But there is one slight change this year—location.

For the last five years, the Texas Virtual Academy contracted with the Houston charter Southwest Schools, which paid K12 to manage and operate the establishment.

But the virtual academy failed to meet state standards two years in a row and faced getting shut down. Southwest Schools severed the contract and no longer offered the online program. Yet that was hardly a problem for K12, which simply got a contract with a different charter school. This year, K12 operates Texas Virtual Academy through a contract with Houston charter Responsive Education Solutions.  Texas Virtual Academy’s relationship with these charter schools is all on paper. So even though it swtiched host charter school, Texas Virtual Academy is virtually unchanged. The school is still going by the same name and operated by the same company, but its record is wiped clean.

The on-paper switch to a new host charter has given Texas Virtual Academy a completely fresh start.

David Fuller, the head of school for Texas Virtual Academy, shrugged off concerns about performance, explaining that the school was only failing among certain subpopulations and overall doing well. He defended the arrangement. “I don’t understand what you mean, there’s a problem,” he said.

Fuller explained that while the school would get a new identification number, the change wouldn’t be a big deal. “The curriculum is still the same,” he said. “It’s still K12.”

In an emailed statement, the Texas Education Agency said that because Texas Virtual Academy had switched host charters, the agency has little authority to regulate the school:

[A]s we understand it, the TxVA campus of Southwest School is gone and the kids dispersed to unknown locations, the Southwest School is no longer responsible for them, but neither is [Responsive Education Solutions]. Even if some of them enroll in the new campus of [Responsive Education Solutions], whatever it is called, we would not have any authority to intervene. If they all, or the vast majority, enrolled in the new [Responsive Education Solutions] virtual campus, or in their existing virtual campus, we don’t have procedures that address that situation. In summary, we are not certain that we have any authority in terms of requiring interventions for the closed campus, or any standing as related to a successor campus.

That’s quite a loophole.

Nowhere on the school’s website is the switch mentioned. In fact, it’s hard to tell how a parent now would even know about the school’s failing record—since it now has a completely different identification number than it did when it was housed under Southwest Schools.

The loophole has larger implications. After all, the Texas Virtual Academy was part of a larger state initiative to examine the possibilities of online education. The state authorized three such schools, two of which were to be run out of charter schools and one of which was run through the Houston Independent School District. The academy wasn’t unique—in all three cases, the virtual schools were managed and operated by for-profit companies. Presumably, all three could take advantage of the loophole.

As I wrote in my September story on educational industries, there’s a lot of enthusiasm around virtual learning:

It’s much cheaper, by and large, than traditional classroom instruction and, according to proponents, offers more innovative ways for students to learn. As the state struggles with long-term budget challenges, virtual learning will likely become an increasingly appealing option for lawmakers looking to save money—or increase “efficiencies”—as the number of students continues to rise.

But while the appeals of virtual learning are easy to see, the verdict is still out on just how to deliver it. Full-time, online-only schools are controversial, particularly when run through a private, for-profit company.

Texas prides itself both on tough school accountability and non-traditional approaches to education. In this case, K12 found a loophole to make them mutually exclusive.

Virtual Schools; Not-So-Virtual Loopholes

After failing to meet state standards, the Texas Virtual Academy is supposed to be shut down. So how has the for-profit company running it?

At this point, there shouldn’t be any more Texas Virtual Academy. It should have shut down because it failed to meet state standards two years in a row.  Instead, students attended yet another year, with almost no interruption, thanks to a loophole that advantages for-profit companies offering .

TXVA as its known, was one of three experimental virtual schools in Texas, all offering all-day virtual education for students, as early as third grade.

I wrote about the Texas Virtual Academy in my September story on for profit companies in the education industries. The school is one of the

The Texas Virtual Academy is a full-time school geared toward students between third and eleventh grades. It differs from other public schools in two major ways. It’s an online-only school, meaning students sit in their homes and take classes over the Internet. And though it’s paid for with public dollars, operations are managed entirely by a for-profit company, K12 Inc.

The school’s website is still located on the K12 Inc. server, and the school’s teachers are still K12 Inc. employees rather than state workers. But this year, the school will be housed at a different charter institution, which means its record of unacceptable student achievement has been wiped clean.

For the last five years, Texas Virtual Academy (through contractor K12) has been housed at the Houston charter school Southwest Schools. The Virginia-based K12 corporation continues to create the curriculum for the school and even trains the teachers.

But it hasn’t exactly been successful. For two of the last three years, the school has failed to meet state standards.

The setup isn’t unusual. These companies, known as for-profit educational management organizations, or EMOs, operate in both brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools. According to a 2009-2010 report from the National Education Policy Center, these for-profit management companies are increasingly prevalent among virtual schools. Texas has allowed for three full-time virtual schools, including the Texas Virtual Academy. All are housed either within charter schools or traditional schools, and all are run by for-profit companies.

Southwest Schools ended its contract with K12 Inc. and shut down the academy for the current school year. Yet that was hardly a problem for K12, which simply got a contract with a different charter school. This year, K12 and Texas Virtual Academy are housed within Responsive Education Solutions in Houston. DeEtta Culbertson, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, said Virtual Academy parents and students shouldn’t notice the change.

But the school does get a new campus number―meaning the performance record of the last several years is no longer associated with its new incarnation. Texas Virtual Academy has a clean slate. Parents looking into the school now housed at Responsive Education Solutions won’t see the institution’s poor track record at Southwest Schools.

Texas prides itself both on tough education assessment standards available to the public and non-traditional learning opportunities. In this case, K12 Inc. found a loophole to make them mutually exclusive.

It was like the Grand Bazaar for schools.

Stretched out across the Austin Convention Center exhibition hall this weekend was every product a superintendent could imagine—from new computer software for teaching math and science to giant scoreboards for baseball and football stadiums. Dozens of construction companies and architectural firms had come with impressive displays to show why they would be the best option for designing or building schools. In the back, one company brought five actual buses, to show the array of transportation options. JC Penney even showed up with a rack of new school uniforms, presumably to appeal to the fashion savvy.

All told, hundreds upon hundreds of vendors hawked their products to the thousands of attendees, all members of the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators. In many respects, it was just like the conventions every year—hundreds of meetings on a variety of topics, a few big name speakers and, of course, the giant exhibition hall.

But unlike in years past, school administrators in town are coping with unprecedented budget cuts from the state Legislature, exacerbating an already unwieldy and inequitable school finance system. There was a grim sort of humor to much of the event. Many of the convention’s breakout sessions focused on how to deal with slashes in funding for public schools. On Friday, the first day of the convention, there were meetings on how to reduce personnel costs, how the budget cuts functioned from a policy perspective and a couple on what districts were doing to cope with the lack of money. Saturday had a few sessions on holding successful bond elections and convincing voters to raise property taxes. Perhaps most surprising was a session from the Texas Education Agency, to help school administrators “get the support you need from the newly down-sized agency.”

The vendors in the exhibition hall were clearly sensitive to the lack of funds. Many were offering bargains and good deals—one massive back-to-school sale. Houston Independent School District was there to offer a consulting service to help districts maximize Medicaid reimbursements for educating eligible special needs students. Nearby, the company eInstruction explained why its Mobi devices were a better option than the computerized “smartboards” so many schools have opted for. “This is cheaper,” explained a salesman as he showed off the device’s capabilities. One company was offering to give away a free soundsystem to school districts that bought their product. And an eager bus security salesman explained the latest camera systems are only $500, as compared with older versions that cost as much as $2,600.

At one booth, advertising Joe Walch’s financial consulting services, an employee had taped up a sign offering “free money.” Turned out, they were offering help with tax elections. Walch, a school finane consultant, explained his complex “tax swap” plan that helped districts get more bang for their buck.  But in a candid moment, he said, between the tremendous cuts and the alread unequal funding levels, the school-finance system in Texas was broken.

He isn’t the only one who thinks so. By 3 p.m., sellers began to pack up. Attendees were heading to the last set of breakout sessions for the day. Among the most popular: the session explaining just how school districts were planning to sue the state over its tattered school finance system.

The Free Market Party

The Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity celebrates Milton Friedman's 99th birthday.

Milton Friedman may have died in 2006, but don’t tell that to the economic conservatives at the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. To celebrate the father of free-market Reaganomics, the group joined others around the nation to mark what would have been the Nobel Laureate’s 99th birthday on July 31.

The meeting place, Zax Restaurant & Bar in Austin, hardly felt like the best location for a gathering of a group closely aligned with the Tea Party. It seemed more like a place for yuppies seeking salmon salad and Pinot Grigio. About 30 celebrators milled around the restaurant, taking advantage of free drink tickets and a table full of bar food. There was no birthday cake.

It was the group’s second “tweet-up,” aimed at bringing online conservative activists together in person. “The last one was younger,” said Brittany Eck, a legislative staffer who frequently attends the group’s events. “It wasn’t Milton Friedman [-themed].”

No one spent much time talking about Friedman’s policies, though. Instead, the group’s director, Peggy Venable, transitioned quickly from a personal remembrance of Friedman’s 2003 visit to the Texas Legislature to the inefficiencies in Texas education.

Americans for Prosperity—with the like-minded groups EmpowerTexans and Texas Public Policy Foundation—successfully pressured Republican legislators this session to slash billions from education and health and human services budgets rather than use money from the state’s piggy bank, the Rainy Day Fund. But even after a win—the state cut almost $5 billion from education alone—AFP is hardly slowing down. “We don’t have unlimited resources,” Venable said after her talk. “We can’t sustain the spending that we’ve been doing” in education.

Attendees were offered big yellow stickers proclaiming “More Education for our Dollars BEFORE more Dollars for Education.” Venable yielded the floor to Chris Covo, a new graduate heading Americans for Prosperity’s group for young people, America’s Next Impact. The group is focused on cutting costs in higher education to reduce the burden on students. Covo told the crowd about his own struggles with student debt and pushed for reform. Covo later explained that he is planning a tour of Texas cities to produce “Generation Debt Happy Hours.”

“A toast to our outstanding payments,” he calls it.

Covo was a hit with the Friedman-loving attendees. But few probably heard his confession: He told me he’s never finished one of the economist’s books. He owns four or five, but he’s never made it past the first 20 pages. 






Texas Observer former editor and famous populist Jim Hightower has taken many a left turn in this all-American, union-made car. Now he’s driving a 21st-century hybrid and he graciously handed his beloved ’97 Ford Escort over to The Texas Observer and for auction.

If you’d like to sit in Jim’s place behind the wheel of this illustrious vehicle – make a bid tomorrow! And thanks to Jim for his generous donation!

Jim’s ’97 Ford Escort
• exterior and interior – good condition
• mileage – 79,341
• automatic transmission
• good mechanical condition
• union made, of course
• no frame damage
• AC, power windows and locks in good shape

PLEASE NOTE: Winner is responsible for picking up the car in Austin, TX.  All funds go to benefit The Texas Observer, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Amount paid for the item is tax-deductible minus its estimated fair-market value of $3,000.


Bob Bullock's deskBOB BULLOCK’S DESK


Bob Bullock’s boot-scrape marks are still on the edge of this storied desk from his 1994 campaign for Lieutenant. Governor. It’s an L-shaped cherrywood-finished desk with a glass top on the short side.

Bullock, one of the giants of Texas political history, served two terms as Texas’ 38th Lieutenant Governor from 1991 to 1999. His career spanned nearly 40 years, and he was credited as being the principal architect of modern Texas government.

But if you’re eying this desk, you already know this and much more about this famous Texan. And you’ll be interested to know that after the campaign it was used by former Texas Observer board president and current board member Jim Marston in his Environmental Defense Fund office, then the desk went on to serve at Texas Progress Council for Director Sandie Haverlah before donated to the Observer.  Next – your home or office?

PLEASE NOTE: Winner is responsible for picking up the desk in Austin, TX. All funds go to benefit The Texas Observer, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Amount paid for the item is tax-deductible minus its estimated fair-market value of $400.

Layoffs and Cutbacks: Rick Perry’s 2011 Education Record

Rick Perry helped make unprecedented cuts to public education. So why is no one talking about it?

Once upon a time, Rick Perry was all about public education. In his 2006 re-election campaign, he devoted an entire ad to his commitment. “I’m proud of Texas schools,” he says to the camera as he wanders through a classroom. “Since I became governor education funding has increased $9 billion.” He beams and stops next to a teacher. “Education is our future and my highest priority.”

This year, Perry helped cut that “highest priority” by an unprecedented $4 billion. Facing a $23 billion shortfall for over the next two years, the governor was adamant that the state budget get balanced through cuts. He pressured the Legislature against tapping Texas’ Rainy Day fund—around $9 billion the state saved up—to help soften the blows to services. When the House Appropriations chair offered his first draft of the budget, school districts were shocked at the proposed $10 billion cut. 100,000 public school employees could face layoffs warned one education expert.

Perry wasn’t concerned. He sent representatives from his office to encourage the House’s austere budget. He shrugged off the worries about mass firings and school closure. “The lieutenant governor, the speaker, their colleagues aren’t going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell,” Perry told reporters. “That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts.” A local decision based on the state’s decision to underfund schools.

School districts across the state opened this week $4 billion underfunded. (The extra funding came thanks to a push from concerned senators.) The cuts are still unprecedented. It’s the first time since 1949, when Texas implemented its modern school finance system, that the state has decreased funding for education.

To cope, some districts are implementing fees for riding the bus or attending pre-k. Many are considering tax increases. At middle schools and high schools, many classrooms are more crowded. None of this is good news to parents. 

Yet almost no one in the Republican field seems eager to criticize the cuts or Perry’s support for them.

In a Tea-Party-dominated GOP it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to earn points talking about the need for more spending and more programs. But in the past, education has always held a special status. Despite concerns about government spending and entitlement programs, free and quality education is rarely considered welfare or a hand-out—most have approached it as a right. 

Additionally, the education cuts have serious job implications. Perry has cast himself as the “jobs candidate.” He points to incredible growth in Texas. But generally left unsaid is almost half of the job growth in the last two years came from education, health care and government sectors. With unprecedented cuts across the board, don’t expect to see that continue. 

Furthermore, Texas already has a serious dropout problem and leads the country in residents over 25 without a high school diploma. Many of the cutbacks come to programs specficially geared to at-risk students, like initiatives to help test performance and mentoring programs. This isn’t a great recipe for employers looking for highly skilled workers. Texas already leads the country in minimum wage jobs.

It’s hard to imagine Perry’s support for such cuts won’t be a campaign issue, but of course it all depends on whether someone will actually raise the point.

In the meantime, I’m hoping the teacher in Perry’s 2006 ad still has a job. 

Why the GOP Field Should Steal A Page From Rick Perry’s 2010 Playbook

In 2010, Rick Perry and his team rewrote the book on campaign strategy. Fortunately for them, it looks like almost no one noticed.

When people heard that Rick Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign wouldn’t have yard signs, political wonks considered it a form of heresy. Supporters could buy yard signs for $7.99, just like they could buy buttons ($2.89) and bumper stickers ($1.99). But the campaign hardly cared if supporters chose to give a a few dollars to show some support.

Instead, from beginning to end, the entire race focused on turnout. Rather than making phone calls and wearing Perry t-shirts, would-be supporters were asked to do something very, very specific: turn out 12 Perry votes from their friends and family.

Only two years before, Barack Obama’s campaign revolutionized politics, using its website and social media sites like Facebook to gain support and promote fundraising. Instead of making very specific requests, Obama’s site allowed supporters to set their own fundraising goals. The campaigns pushed supporters to help with get-out-the-vote efforts and offered a multitude of ways that people could do so. Compared to Obama’s a la carte options, Perry’s campaign was prix-fixe.

Both strategies were ultimately successful, destroying a lot of the common wisdom around campaigns. But while Obama’s techniques have a lot of copy-cats, few people seem to have noticed Perry’s playbook. It’s especially odd because Perry’s strategy may have some particular advantages in presidential primaries.

Back in 2010, Perry was in the toughest race of his career, running in a primary against the wildly popular and well-funded U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Politicos had assumed Perry could only win if turn-out was low; if more people came to the polls, it would mean more moderates were coming to the polls—presumably to vote against the more extreme candidate, Rick Perry.

But his chief strategist, Dave Carney, had already hatched an innovative plan based around bringing more voters to the polls not less.

As I wrote in my recent profile of Carney:

Heading into Perry’s 2006 reelection campaign, Carney picked up a book to read on a plane—Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. When he finished reading he promptly ordered copies for everyone he worked with. Then he called one of the authors, Yale political scientist Donald Green. Like many others who read the book, Carney was shocked by its findings: That old-fashioned, door-to-door campaigning is the most efficient way to turn out voters. Volunteer phone calls are pretty good too. But television ads, mailers and robocalls—the mainstays of modern campaigns and moneymakers for political consultants—have virtually no impact on voter turnout.

Carney invited the two authors, along with a couple other professors, to run experiments on Perry’s 2006 re-election campaign. When they returned with the same findings, Carney and the Perry team decided that in 2010, they would try something totally new. All the usual political tools were ignored; the campaign ran few television ads, had virtually no phone banks and barely sent out mailers to supporters. Instead, Perry’s website asked supporters to sign up as “Home Headquarters.”  Those who signed up agreed to identify 12 Perry supporters and get them out to early voting. To add incentive, the campaign offered door prizes like lunch with former quarterback Troy Aikman or tacos with country music star Pat Green. (You can still see the old page at Perry’s current website.) Through reaching out online, the campaign continued to build supporters, and then quickly got them recruiting others. The website functioned as its own headquarters of sorts, offering tips on reaching out and giving luddites lessons in using Facebook and Twitter. Unlike the Obama campaign’s famous website, the Perry campaign focused not on fundraising but getting people to turn out to vote. 

The entire effort was a resounding success. Almost 1.5 million voted in the Republican primary, more than had voted in 2008 when GOP presidential nominees were still battling it out. The unprecedented turnout carried Perry to a decisive victory over Hutchison.

The plan is easily scalable—after all, Texas is a big state with both rural, urban and suburban communities. Furthermore, it does not require each town have its own campaign headquarters or official organizers. Instead, community leaders can take a role, working somewhat independently to determine the best ways to appeal to their social network. It also takes some of the burden off the candidate and the campaign; instead of getting introduced the Rick Perry through an ad, you can learn about him through Mrs. Johnson down the street.

In small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire, where local political leaders have outsized influence, the strategy would seem to work particularly well. Win over some big-wigs and they’ll start turning out their friends. Who in turn, will turn out their friends. And perhaps most appealing, the plan makes a very specific request—deliver 12 votes—which means that everyone signs up knows exactly what they’ve committed to.

It’s too early to tell if Perry will use the same strategy in the national election. His website is currently pretty bare—it doesn’t even have an issues section. But if he does choose to revive the plan, we’ll get to see the pros and cons of his plan compared to Obama’s. That’s because Mitt Romney is shamelessly borrowing Barack Obama’s web strategy.

Obama had the unfortunately named social network “myBO”; Romney has the even worse-sounding “myMitt”. Just like “myBO”, supporters create an account that functions much like a social media site. They can set fundraising goals and show the different ways they were supporting the candidate. They can even link their campaign work with sites like Facebook and Twitter and even AOL (for those 12 people who never made the switch.)

Romney’s site does have a few kinks, however. Click the button for “Action” and you come to a page with four options: fundraise, gear up, donate and volunteer. Unfortunately, not a single one of these options has a link. You may want to volunteer but there’s no clear way to do it. MyMitt doesn’t really have a lot of instructions or explanations. Plus, you have to set your own goals.

Undoubtedly both strategies have some drawbacks—while Perry’s 2010 plan was very straight forward, there was little emphasis on fundraising. (In Texas, there’s no cap on campaign contributions, so he could rely on a few mega-rich donors.) Obama’s 2008 approach garnered unprecedented sums, particularly from small donors. But giving supporters specific tasks and goals, a la Home Headquarters, offers particular advantages. Using the web to orchestrate more local, in-person networks may especially suit places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

There’s also a chance that some campaigns choose to combine some of Perry’s 2010 strategies with Obama’s plan from 2008. There are some indications that campaigns are far less wedded to political dogma. These days a Mitt Romney yard sign goes for $15—coincidentally the same price as Barack Obama’s.