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Rick Perry’s frontrunner status for the Republican presidential nomination is in jeopardy, thanks in part to his support of in-state tuition for college students who lack legal documentation to be in the United States.

The Texas governor has clashed visibly and often with leaders of public colleges, so it’s a surprising twist to see him take a hit for defending a state law that enjoys wide support in higher education circles. But a closer look reveals that while Perry rarely sees eye to eye with research universities in Texas, he has a much more nuanced and even positive record with community colleges -- the institutions that most undocumented students attend.

“I would not put him in the opponent category at all,” said Steven Johnson, the associate vice president for external relations at the Texas Association of Community Colleges. “He’s clearly been a partner of ours.”

Perry, a Texas A&M University alum who has been governor since 2000, has criticized what he sees as inefficiencies at research universities, and has pushed for a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. His allies have even been critical of the research clout of the University of Texas at Austin.

Leaders of community colleges in Texas, however, say they have had Perry’s ear in recent budget debates. And while community colleges have been hit hard by flat state support, their funding could have been worse.

Wright Lassiter is chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, and first came to the district as a community college president 25 years ago. He said community colleges were treated more fairly this year than in any previous Texas budget cycle he’s witnessed, and he gives Perry a big share of the credit for that shift.

“In the past, community colleges got the crumbs,” Lassiter said. “For the first time it was an equal playing field.”

Richard Moore, executive director of the Texas Community College Teachers Association, said recent budget cuts have been painful for faculty. But he said the association felt it "had an open channel of communication" with Perry's office during the budget season.

"Our message was heard," Moore said. "We got as good of a result out of that legislative session as we could get."

Working Class

That doesn’t mean the state’s community colleges are flush with cash. The state’s share of their overall funding declined from 61 percent in 1985 to 24 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, enrollment has increased dramatically. The total headcount at community colleges in Texas hit 750,000 this year, up by 250,000 since 2005 -- and, Johnson noted, five times the enrollment of the University of Texas at Austin.

"The state has not been able to keep up with that level of growth,” he said.

Yet several community college chiefs said Perry sees the value of their sector’s heavy focus on workforce development, which has at times led to new money. For example, Lassiter said Perry has endorsed significant funding for nursing and remedial education programs. And community college leaders were at the table to help hammer out the details for the recent launch of Western Governors University Texas, creating a partnership they hope will create a smooth transition for community college graduates to the fully online, state-affiliated university.

“He’s been supportive, and I think he understands the role of community colleges,” said Richard M. Rhodes, the new president of the Austin Community College District, and former head of El Paso Community College.

That sort of praise may seem unlikely, given that Texas is at the forefront of several states where lawmakers are pushing efficiency-based higher education reforms. But those efforts sometimes pit the interests of community colleges against those of research universities. And politicians can score points for bashing the “Ivory Tower” in Texas, where anti-elitist sentiment runs deep.

While research universities in Texas have taken a beating lately from the state’s lawmakers, community colleges have avoided much of that scrutiny -- at least since a 2007 dust-up with Perry over state funding of health care benefits. The damage from that conflict has largely been resolved, said community college leaders.

“Texas has always had an ambivalent relationship with higher education. The higher up the chain, the more ambivalent,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University and an expert on the state’s politics.

That means the perception that community colleges are getting along well with Perry is all relative, Jillson said, and the sector’s positive feelings about the governor may be a “mild case of Stockholm Syndrome,” given its long neglect by lawmakers.

Perry is the longest-serving Texas governor, and his appointees fill many posts around the state. As a result, community colleges are unwilling to criticize him publicly, said JJ Baskin, a member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which has squared off with critics of Texas research universities.

"He has not been shy about pushing back against his detractors," Baskin said.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini agrees. The state lawmaker, a Democrat who represents Laredo and chairs the higher education committee, said community college leaders have at times been afraid to criticize Perry, despite not receiving the sort of budget support they deserve.

"I would not describe Governor Perry as a champion of junior and community colleges," Zaffirini said. "We require so much from them and they are not funded satisfactorily."

'Progressive' Perry?

Perry signed a law in 2001 that made Texas the first state to grant in-state tuition rates to some students who lack documentation to reside legally in the United States. Several other states have since enacted similar laws, including California and New York. Referred to as the Noriega Act in Texas, the policy is much narrower than the federal DREAM Act. Perry vigorously opposes that proposed bill, which has been defeated in Congress and would grant permanent residency to certain undocumented immigrant students.

Still, the Texas law has proved easy pickings for Perry’s rivals, who have sought to portray him as squishy on illegal immigration. "I've got be honest with you, I don't see how it is that a state like Texas -- to go to the University of Texas, if you're an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount," Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said during a debate last month.

During the 2009-10 academic year, 16,476 students in Texas were granted in-state tuition rates as a result of the Noriega Act, according to the most recent figures available from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Almost three-quarters of those students -- 12,028 -- attended public two-year colleges.

The criticism from his competitors seems to be working. Perry has slipped in some polls, which political analysts attribute both to his tuition stance and to an overall wobbly performance in debates.

Romney and other candidates have criticized the benefit’s cost to taxpayers. Texas has serious money woes, having cut its biennial budget by 8 percent compared to the previous one. But the differential tuition policy is not a major contributor to the $172 billion overall budget. It can make a big difference for students, however.

Full-time students pay $4,400 in annual tuition and fees at in-state and in-district rates, according to data from the coordinating board, compared to $9,600 for nonresidents.

Politicians often change stances during a presidential run, sometimes claiming that a policy might have worked in their home state, but not on the national level. Perry has stuck by the Noriega Act, however, with a gusto that has surprised some pundits.

“If you've been in the state of Texas for three years, if you're working towards your college degree, and if you are working and pursuing citizenship in the state of Texas, you pay in-state tuition there," he said during a debate, eliciting boos. "And the bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way. No matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you.”

Perry even said of the law's opponents, "I don't think you have a heart," but has since backed off that statement.

Republicans in Texas are generally more welcoming to Hispanics -- who make up the bulk of undocumented immigrants in the state -- than their peers in other states are. George W. Bush, the former president and Texas governor, worked hard to reach out to Mexican-Americans and other Latinos.

Lassiter applauded Perry for holding his ground on the policy, but said his response to the criticism during debates has been a bit “blustery.”

The governor’s combative streak contributed to his 2007 feud with community colleges over health care funding. On the last day of budget negotiations, Perry vetoed $154 million in health care support for community colleges. He also said colleges were exaggerating the number of employees who were eligible for the benefits. In doing so Perry essentially accused them of $126 million in fraud.

Zaffirini said Perry's veto was "unwarranted and totally unexpected."

Community colleges fired back, and the full $154 million was later restored.

In the four years since that dispute, community college leaders said their relations with the governor have been repaired.

Rhodes said Perry has pushed hard for better cooperation between community colleges and other public institutions. He also forced the cost-saving conversation before the state’s economy tanked, which Rhodes said was helpful.

“He was progressive and a little bit ahead of his time in getting us to address efficiency,” said Rhodes.

The governor now has a “more enlightened view of community colleges," Lassiter said. But that can always change. “We have not forgotten” the health care veto, he said.

And more budget battles almost certainly loom on the horizon for community colleges in Texas, regardless of who occupies the governor’s mansion.

As Jillson said: “They have plenty to worry about with the next session."

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