WESLACO, Texas—Shifting the Texas governor's race to education after a bruising few weeks over equal pay, Republican Greg Abbott on Monday called for getting students out of federal Head Start programs with a classroom vision that borrows from GOP ideas old and new.

The Texas attorney general isn't ceding the debate over public schools this election to Democrat Wendy Davis, who counts teachers among her biggest backers. The Fort Worth senator filibustered nearly $5.4 billion in classroom cuts in 2011 before her star-making stand over abortion restrictions last year.

Abbott chose an elementary school in the Rio Grande Valley to unveil his early education plan: up to $118 million in pre-K dollars for districts that meet higher standards and the return of a reading initiative started under former Gov. George W. Bush.

His platform also singles out a favorite personal target—the federal government—by calling for Texas families to turn away from Head Start and toward early education alternatives in their local districts.

"I am laying out an a education plan for the next decade to elevate Texas to a No. 1 ranking in the country," Abbott said.

Davis seized on Abbott pivoting his campaign to education before the specifics of his plan were even announced. She has criticized Abbott over his office defending the historic 2011 classroom cuts that led to more than half of the 1,000-plus school districts in Texas to sue. Lawmakers last year restored most of that funding.


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Abbott has said his office is obligated to represent the state in court but hasn't taken a stance on whether he agreed with the cuts.

"The hypocrisy is astonishing. It's completely dishonest for Greg Abbott to be talking about early education at the same time he's defending deep cuts to Texas pre-K in the courtroom," Davis said in a statement.

Abbott's pre-K plan isn't entirely new: even materials provided by his campaign call the proposal "similar" in ways to a 2009 bill in the Legislature that garnered wide bipartisan support but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry at the time cited "limited state resources" to the plan that would have helped schools offer full-day pre-kindergarten. Abbott's proposal doesn't call for full-day but does mandate higher standards for half-day programs.

"I don't know the details of that bill," Abbott said of the 2009 proposal. "What I can tell you is if a bill like the one I'm talking about here is passed, of course I'm signing it into law."

Davis has also called for higher quality pre-K, expanded eligibility and early childhood reading efforts.

Whoever replaces Perry next year inherits a public school system undergoing a major makeover, including fewer high-stakes standardized tests and more charter schools.

Education is a conversation Abbott is willing to have after Davis spent the past several weeks criticizing Abbott over pay discrimination lawsuits and salary differences between men and women in his office. Abbott has said he would veto a measure to make it easier for women to bring pay discrimination lawsuits in state court, saying legal avenues already exist.

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