As speculation about his presidential aspirations grows, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told an assembly of state lawmakers from around the country that the federal government needs to stop "dictating" school policy and limit spending.
Perry's speech Wednesday morning at the National Conference of State Legislatures' summit offered no formal announcements about a White House campaign, but he provided a sharply contrasting vision from the Obama administration on the federal role in creating jobs and spurring innovation during a bleak economic period.
"Government doesn't create jobs, otherwise the last two and a half years of stimulus would have worked," Perry told lawmakers, adding that "no government program, however well-intentioned," can put a sufficient charge into a lagging economy.
Whether state lawmakers buy into Perry's vision remains to be seen.
Many of the legilslators attending the event hosted by NCSL, a nonpartisan organization, are coping with dire budget conditions in their states, which have relied on billions of dollars in emergency federal stimulus aid, supported by the Obama administration, to help stave off deep cuts to schools. Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have argued that the stimulus program, and additional Education Jobs Fund, have saved hundreds of thousands of school jobs across the country and sparked daring academic overhauls in states and districts at the same time.
But Perry, in remarks that focused heavily on his vision for creating jobs, pointed to his state's relatively strong economic record as evidence that keeping taxes low and government spending to a minimum is the path to follow.
"Simply put, our country's in trouble," he said. "Our fiscal house is built on shifting sands."
Many of the Obama administration's education policies, including those funded with federal stimulus dollars, have drawn praise from state officials, including Republicans. But Perry has been a steadfast critic of the administration, which he says has coerced states into accepting heavy federal involvement in schools, mostly by offering large amounts of money from Washington.
One source of Perry's ire is the federal Race to the Top program, a $4.35 billion federal competition championed by the Obama administration that encouraged states to approve laws to pay and evaluate teachers on classroom performance, adopt common academic standards, and overhaul their data systems, among other steps. Perry has blasted the program as an effort to "bait states into adopting national standards," and "undermine states' authority to determine how their students are educated." He refused to allow his state to apply for the program, making it one of only a handful of states not to do so.
Perry has denounced the idea of common academic standards, saying that Texas "would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats." (Some conservatives, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, disagree, arguing that the common standards can drive school improvement.) Perry has also criticized the overall federal stimulus spending to states, though his state has accepted billions of dollars in that aid, including money for schools.
Texas recently emerged from a state legislative session that saw Perry and lawmakers approve a budget that many local school officials say will result in job losses, and major cuts in programs and services. But Perry, while not addressing K-12 spending directly, argued that his state had followed the right course in not raising taxes to generate more revenue.
"We made the tough choices," he told lawmakers. "We tightened our belts. Because we know you can't tax and spend your way to prosperity."
Lawmakers had different reactions to Perry's speech. Brad Montell, a Republican state representative from Kentucky, said Perry probably angered some Democrats at the conference by delivering a "campaign-style" message at a nonpartisan event.
But Montell said he agreed with much of that message, particularly the idea that the economic stimulus had not had the desired effect.
"The federal government swung way too far, and I think that pendulum has to swing back," Montell said.
While he said that the emergency federal spending had kept many public workers, including school employees, off the unemployment line, the Republican argued that only jobs created by the stimulus "were government jobs ... and that doesn't stimulate the economy."
The response was different from Washington state Rep. Bob Hasegawa, a Democrat attending the conference. He said the stimulus provided shelter—albeit temporary shelter—from the fiscal crisis, "but that money's gone now."
Federal and state officials need to work together in creating the sorts of jobs that will build wealth, said Hasegawa, who believes Perry put far too much faith in the private sector to lift the nation's economy.
"His message was, 'let the corporations settle everything for us,'" the Democrat said, "and we see how well that's worked."
UPDATE (Aug. 11): A spokesman for Perry confirmed on Thursday that Perry will run for president, the Associated Press reported. Spokesman Mark Miner said the governor would make the announcement Saturday, when he visits South Carolina and New Hampshire.
Photo: Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at The Response, a call to prayer for a nation in crisis on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)