HOUSTON — As a judge begins considering Tuesday whether Texas is adequately funding public schools, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says this about the state's teachers: They're bringing home a decent paycheck.
"At the end of the day, we're paying our school teachers — when you count in cost of living — a very fair salary," Dewhurst said Monday night during a debate against the three big-name GOP challengers trying to deny him a fourth term.
State Sen. Dan Patrick said afterward that Dewhurst's comment was "off the mark" and called for more pay for math and science teachers, who are needed in the state.
Texas consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in average teacher pay according to many groups that track classroom salaries, including teacher unions. One expert testified in the state's pivotal school finance trial last year that Texas' average teacher pay was about $47,300 in 2009-10 dollars — lower than the national average of nearly $55,000, and less than what 32 other states pay educators.
That trial ended with a state judge determining that the system Texas uses to finance public education is unconstitutional. New testimony is set to resume Tuesday in Austin.
Patrick lobbed the most attacks during the debate — usually against Dewhurst. But he also occasionally found himself on the defensive, including when Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson challenged Patrick for what he characterized as a ceremonial "no" on the final Texas budget vote after not opposing earlier versions last spring.
"My point is you voted yes, before you voted no," Patterson said.
Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples is also running in the race, which features four largely ideologically indistinguishable conservatives. The primary is March 4 but the potential for a runoff is high.
Education is already shaping to be the biggest issue in the governor's race between Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis. Abbott has declined to weigh in on whether the state is adequately funding classrooms, while Davis says teachers are underpaid and decries stories of some working second or third jobs.
Dewhurst said following the debate that, if he had his way, Texas teachers would be paid well enough that there would be a "tsunami of applicants." But he said when it comes to teacher salaries, the state is often compared to other regions with higher costs of living.
"That means instead of paying teachers little over $50,000 to $55,000 on average each teacher, when you factor that in and you compare it to other states, they're being paid substantially more," said Dewhurst, referring to Texas teachers.
Patrick, chairman of the Senate's education committee, said he's OK with boosting teacher pay so long as there's accountability.
"Some teachers that we have are underpaid, some teachers that we have are overpaid," Patrick said. "Let's focus on paying more money to teachers in the needed subject areas, and let's pay more money to teachers who perform."
Dewhurst, 68, is the only major statewide office holder trying to keep his current job, which he's held since 2002. He says he wants one more term before returning to the private sector. Dewhurst is also by far the wealthiest candidate in the race, but spending $25 million of his personal future in 2012 still wasn't enough to defeat Ted Cruz for a U.S. Senate seat.
Staples has been agriculture commissioner since 2006 and Patterson was first elected land commissioner since 2002. Patrick has served in the Senate since 2007.
All four candidates backed away from the concept of repealing the 17th Amendment and letting state lawmakers choose U.S. senators, which has recently gained traction among some conservative groups.
"If we didn't have direct elections of senators, Ted Cruz wouldn't be in the United States senate today," said Staples, drawing hollers and cheers from the crowd.
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