It’s Grusendorf’s time to make the grade; No longer the maverick, Arlington lawmaker poised to lead education panel

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

When Kent Grusendorf first ran for the State Board of Education in 1982, he was an outsider, lobbing criticism into the education establishment.

Now he is the establishment.

The things he has pushed for ? a strong accountability system for schools, less power for teachers, more autonomy for school districts ? have largely become reality.

“When I was running for the state board, I was deemed pretty radical at the time,” he said. “Now those ideas are mainstream.”

Thursday, the Arlington lawmaker is expected to be named chairman of the Texas House’s public education committee, one of the state’s most powerful posts in setting rules for schools. It’s his first real taste of leadership after years in the minority.

For his fellow conservatives, his new role is validation for the many battles they have fought and won over the last two decades. For his opponents, it puts the state’s education gains at risk.

In addition to defending education financing in a severe budget crunch, Mr. Grusendorf will push for a pilot voucher program that would allow parents to spend tax dollars on private school tuition. He also wants to end the state’s minimum teacher salary, one of several ideas teacher groups will oppose.

“Public education is a powder keg in this session, in no small part because of Mr. Grusendorf’s agenda,” said Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that opposes social conservatives. “He’s one of the more ideologically driven members of the Texas House.”

Mr. Grusendorf doesn’t shrink from being called a conservative.

“I’m a proud Ronald Reagan Republican,” he said.

Mr. Grusendorf grew up in Waco ? his ritual morning Dr Peppers are evidence of that ? and moved to Arlington to attend Arlington State College on a band scholarship. (He played French horn.) Not long after graduation in the mid-’60s, he started his own business supplying fasteners and other hardware to the aerospace industry.

“I’ve been on my own ever since,” he said.

His interest in education issues began in the late 1970s, when he started arguing that Texas schools were teaching history and economics from too liberal a perspective.

At first, he argued his point through an Arlington Rotary Club and the local chamber.

“I wanted to promote free enterprise in education,” he said. “I had no intention of getting involved in politics. It was pure accident.”

After becoming active in local Republican circles, he was approached to run for a seat on the State Board of Education in 1982. He served two years before the board was converted from an elected body to an appointed one. (It has reverted to elections.)

In 1986, he ran for the legislative seat he has held since. From the moment he arrived, education has been his focus.

“It’s the future of society,” he said.

He has been remarkably consistent, pushing for strong systems of school accountability and testing. He has lobbied for alternative certification programs that let people become teachers without going through four years of training. He also advocated giving local school districts more autonomy.

Over time, much of that agenda has gained bipartisan support and become reality.

“He’s a good conservative who believes in local control and accountability,” said Geraldine Miller, a member of the State Board of Education. “I always admired his commitment to education.”

He has also pushed to make Texas’ educational system more transparent, through things such as the release of test scores. When he was first elected to the state board, he asked an official at the Texas Education Agency whether he could see how Arlington-area schools had performed on the state’s standardized tests.

The reply? “Oh, no! That’s confidential!”

“The establishment was very protective of itself,” he said. “They didn’t want the public to see how things worked.”

Now, of course, you don’t have to be a state board member to see a school’s test scores ? you can read the newspaper, watch TV or go online to find out.

Mr. Grusendorf hasn’t been completely successful in getting his ideas passed. As a Republican, he has been in the House minority, which has limited his influence at times.

“When I was a freshman legislator [in 1991], Kent was one of the regular dissenters on the public education committee,” said Paul Sadler, the Henderson Democrat who chaired the committee for the last three sessions but did not run for re-election. “I didn’t always agree with what he philosophically agreed with. But from that day until today, 12 years later, I have never questioned his integrity or his passion for education.”

Now, as the likely chairman, Mr. Grusendorf will have more chances to influence legislation. For example, in previous sessions he pushed for school vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools at public expense. He’ll try again to get a pilot voucher program passed this year.

“We’re working for the children, not the special interests,” he said.

When Mr. Grusendorf says “special interests,” he often means teacher groups, perhaps his most regular foil.

“Teachers still have a lot of power in Texas,” Mr. Grusendorf said. “It’s amazing when you sit in an education committee meeting ? you’ve got all these special interests sitting there.”

In 1988, he made headlines for criticizing a state teacher evaluation system, calling it a “dismal failure” and a “joke” because it protected incompetent teachers. Only about 500 of the state’s 175,000 teachers that year were rated less than satisfactory.

Three years ago, he founded the Texas Education Reform Caucus, a group that, among other things, makes recommendations before each legislative session. Among the changes the caucus is advocating this session:

– Giving school districts more freedom to discipline and fire teachers.

– Allowing districts to ignore the state teacher salary schedule. State law requires districts to pay starting teachers a minimum of $24,240 a year.

– Allowing any adult with a bachelor’s degree who can pass a standardized test to be certified as a teacher.

– Giving any school rated “recognized” or “exemplary” the same flexibility that charter schools have, including the ability to hire uncertified teachers.

The idea behind all the measures is to give local districts maximum flexibility. Teacher groups would typically back none of them.

“When we saw those recommendations, we were fairly chagrined,” said Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. “We’ve got some clear differences. But he’s fervent in his beliefs, which is what makes him a formidable opponent when you’re on the other side.”

Despite their many differences with Mr. Grusendorf, some teacher groups say they’re willing to work with Mr. Grusendorf. He often agrees with them on the need for better mentoring programs for first-year teachers and on tighter discipline in classrooms. And they say he will fight for education when it comes to financial issues.

“We hear a commitment from Kent to put adequate money into education, as long as we don’t back off of standards,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who has worked with the representative on the reform caucus’s activities. “My view of Kent has changed dramatically. In the past, we perceived him as a little bit hostile to teachers. That’s not really the case.”

Mr. Grusendorf predicted that, even with a multibillion-dollar deficit looming, legislators will find money to increase funding for schools this session.

“We always find money for education, even when there’s no money to go around,” he said.

The question teacher groups have been asking themselves is how hard Mr. Grusendorf will push for his proposals, given his new authority.

“He has had this passion for education for a great many years,” Ms. Stone said. “It’s taken him a long time to get where he is. I think he plans to maximize his opportunity.”

“I don’t think we’re going to see a car-bombing of the public school system, or even a big change in the direction of the public school system.” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “I think Representative Grusendorf will have to compromise and move to the center to get things done, and I think he knows that.”

The committee’s outgoing chairman agreed. “Will he take the committee in a little different direction than I did? Probably so,” Mr. Sadler said. “I would expect that. Will that be detrimental? I seriously doubt it. I don’t have any question in my mind he’s going to do a good job.”