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Wendy Davis and the Curious Case of the Pre-Kindergarten STAAR

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Wendy Davis speaks at a rally in the basement of the Texas State Teacher's Association building in Austin. April 14, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks at a rally in the basement of the Texas State Teachers Association building in Austin. April 14, 2014.

Think of the most damaging association you could pin on a political opponent in Texas—assuming you can’t get them to pose with Bob Stoops. Standardized testing is a good bet. Teachers hate it; parents hate it; students hate it. Only testing companies and a small number of education reformers are for the current standardized testing system. A measure to reduce testing passed the 150-member Texas House last session with only two votes against. A growing number of parents are keeping their kids home on test days—approximating something like a civil resistance movement.

So it’s easy to understand why gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is hammering Greg Abbott’s proposal to expand pre-K programs and measure their success with an “assessment” regimen. Abbott’s campaign has made a mess of the whole thing. They told reporters Abbott’s policy paper was “for informational purposes only,” which doesn’t mean anything at all. From a political standpoint, it would have been best to leave the testing bit out of the proposal. It joins other small unforced errors—like his citation of one of Charles Murray’s books—that the suddenly hyper-aggressive Davis campaign are picking at like velociraptors at drumsticks.

In truth, there’s less to these errors than meets the eye. Murray is an extremely provocative figure, but his role in Abbott’s paper is minor. As for the testing bit—Abbott’s pre-K plan calls for some kind of assessment program, but it leaves ambiguity about how to do it. There are three proposals in the plan. The first, which the Davis campaign has pounced on, is testing.

But the proposal notes that using tests is “in some views deficient because they do not capture the full spectrum of the students skill set [sic] and cannot truly be used to determine quality of the program.” Then the paper lays out two other methods, which have nothing to do with testing, and gives their pros and cons. The paper itself seems undecided about which is best.

It’s not exactly a full-throated endorsement, and when you read the whole thing, the prospect of future 4-year-olds filling in answer bubbles with crayons seems pretty distant. But the Davis campaign is going in, as they say, whole hog. On Monday, Davis spoke at a rally in the basement of the Texas State Teachers Association building, behind a podium with the particularly unsubtle slogan, “Greg Abbott’s plan: Standardized Tests for 4-year-olds.”

At length, Davis expounded upon the testing controversy, Abbott’s mishandling of it, and last month’s Murray-gate. “We have all the information we need about Greg Abbott’s plan,” she said. “Four-year-olds should be coloring with crayons, not filling in bubbles” on tests.

Davis rally’ was held during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Education, chaired by state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). That hearing was called to take stock of a number of public education overhauls, including testing, undertaken last session. Both Davis and leiutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte were in attendance. Patrick played a prominent role in the passage of last session’s testing reforms—and pushed for a sweeping expansion of the charter school system in the state that ultimately failed. If Patrick becomes our next lieutenant governor he’ll get another shot at those reforms—and from a position of power. That would be a huge and fundamental change to the way Texas works, and the state’s citizens would benefit from a lengthy debate on it.

Davis is pushing her own education reform plan, but that hasn’t gotten as much coverage as her spats with Abbott: Nugent-gate, Murray-gate, and now test-gate. Davis seems to be using the recent fights to talk up her policy proposals a bit. Today, she spoke about the work of Steve Murdock of Rice University, a demographer and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau under George W. Bush.

“One of his most important recommendations, that’s come out of reams of data and years and years of study, is that we invest in our youngest,” Davis said. Her plan was set on “ensuring that every single four-year-old in this state will have access to quality full-day pre-K programs,” while Abbott’s chips away at the problem on a tight budget.

We’ve had a relative paucity of policy discussion in this campaign so far, on both sides. If the Davis campaign can find a way to use test-gate as a way to tout her education policy credentials, that would be a great thing. But it might just end up getting lost in the noise.

Christopher Hooks joined the Observer in 2014. Previously, he was a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.