Revenge of the Nerds


There are some tried and true topics that politicians all must like. Like babies and the flag. God blessing the country and state. You know, happy stuff, puppies and rainbows (unless, of course, the rainbow stands for gay marriage.)

This category generally also encompasses education. In most political races, education feels like an easy applause line―the “importance of good schools” is rarely controversial and rarely leads to much debate.

Except in this case, it has. As Bill White shifts his focus to “border security”  with a new ad and a reasonably publicized plan, it’s worth noting that his previous efforts to control the education debate appears to have been quite successful.

I wrote a post last week detailing an event in Lubbock, where Perry touted his commitment to education. Despite a track record more focused on helping Texas businesses, the governor tried to create a narrative of improving schools, referencing just about every new initiative in recent memory. (A story from the Abilene Reporter-News showed Perry’s efforts didn’t really play out so well in the community.)

That initiative didn’t come from just anywhere. Early on, White established himself as all about education. If you had forgotten that White’s parents were schoolteachers in San Antonio, watch pretty much any of first few ads to be reminded. In addition to showing photos of Bill White: The Awkward Years, they talk largely about his parents’ emphasis on school and his own scholarship to Harvard. The campaign hammered discrepancies in the dropout rate through ads implying that Perry was more into politicking than education policy.

It was a good topic for White thanks to his inherent nerdiness, and the campaign took full advantage.They worked hard to link the State Board of Education melodrama to Perry. (The board is actually elected separately and Perry’s only role is to appoint a chair.) Now, as the various agencies try to come up with reduced budgets, White’s folks are focusing on the Texas Education Agency’s cuts. (Seat belts for schools buses primarily.)

This is a significant win for White. He’s been able to identify himself with an issue and generate debate around it. He’s set the terms―focusing on dropouts and financing―and it’s been Perry who’s had to respond. Now Perry is amping up his education talk, in response, highlighting his solutions to the dropout problem, like virtual schools, while linking prepared students with a skilled workforce. With Perry at least tangentially responding, clearly, White’s emphasis has paid off.

Now the campaign is pushing White’s border bona fides―the number of border sheriffs supporting him, the need to work with the feds. The issue has been a political football for a while, and it’s certainly been part of the Perry repertoire. It will be tougher for Bill White to control this debate.