Senate leadership shuffle resurfaces discussion of education

Alexa Ura

In an unexpected reshuffling of state Senate committee chairmanships, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst replaced a longtime Democrat from the Higher Education Committee.

Dewhurst announced a reorganization of Senate committee appointments for the upcoming legislative session Thursday morning, replacing the former Higher Education chair, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, with Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.

Zaffirini was appointed to chair the Senate Committee on Government Organization, which will oversee reviews of state agencies through the sunset legislation.

Seliger said the Higher Education Committee will continue to focus on high-quality and affordable education.

“I don’t think the committee’s priorities will change, because the priorities of higher education in Texas don’t change,” Seliger said.

He said the committee will not push programs that align with committee agendas from previous sessions.

“We won’t be strictly looking at specific programs,” Seliger said. “We are charged to look at education in the larger sense. We will focus on the overall goal of education and look for what we can do to assist universities in reaching that goal.”

The Daily Texan spoke with Zaffirini about her goals for the upcoming session, all of which revolved around higher education.

Zaffirini said she planned to pursue outcome-based funding for universities, a model endorsed by Gov. Rick Perry earlier this week. Outcome-based funding would tie the number of graduating students to 10 percent of an institution’s funding.

Zaffirini also said she hoped to increase funding for state financial aid programs after major cuts slashed aid for students during the previous legislative sessions.

“Part of affordability is financial aid, which the Legislature has reduced,” Zaffirini said. “I’m hoping to restore some of that funding now that we don’t have the same dire circumstances. It’s important that we identify how much a quality education costs and what the costs are for students.”

A champion of affordable higher education, Zaffirini served as chair of the Higher Education Committee since its inception in 2009. She chaired the Higher Education Subcommittee beginning in 2005 before it was upgraded to a regular committee. 

Zaffirini will continue to serve on the Higher Education Committee and the Subcommittee on Higher Education Funding as a regular member. She will also continue to co-chair the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency with Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Seliger said it is too early to talk about increasing funding to any program.

“Every area needs increased funding right now,” he said. “With increased expectations of higher education, we will work with and talk to universities about appropriations before moving forward.”

Seliger previously served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting during the 82nd legislative session.

Seliger’s appointment to the Higher Education Committee aims “to maximize the benefits of his interest in education and workforce development and his ability to work with all members,” according to a statement released by Dewhurst.

“This upcoming session will be difficult,” Dewhurst said in the statement. “As a lifelong businessman, I have constantly tried to challenge my colleagues and myself through new leadership opportunities and rotating assignments that require fresh conservative thinking and conservative solutions.”

Dewhurst recently lost a Texas primary runoff election. Republican Ted Cruz beat Dewhurst in August, becoming the party’s nominee for Texas Senator.

Printed on Friday, October 5, 2012 as: Education board shuffles: New academic outlook arises from redistribution of committee positions