Meet Rep. Gary VanDeaver: Advocate for public education
Participation on FFA and an admiration for his high school ag teacher led State Rep. Gary VanDeaver to a long career in public education. Frustration with education policy, and a desire to serve, spurred him to serve in the Texas House of Representatives, where he continues to have an impact while keeping rural education concerns in mind. TAD recently asked Rep. VanDeaver a few questions so our readers could get to know him:
Your official bio describes growing up on a small family cattle operation in Red River County – tell our dairy farmer members about your background in agriculture.
Ours was a relatively small cow-calf operation consisting of around 100 head of momma cows. My dad also worked for the Soil Conservation Service, so it truly required the entire family to make the cattle operation work. We were pretty self-sufficient. We put up our hay (this was before round bales were invented) in the winter, and we fed and cared for the cattle before catching the bus for school. Our lives were pretty well centered around school and cattle. Naturally, I was very involved in FFA throughout high school. I suppose it was experience at home and through FFA that led me to major in agriculture in college
What sparked your interest in education and led to your long career as an educator? And what sparked your decision to transition from your work in public schools to run for the Texas House?
As I mentioned previously, I was very involved in Vocational Agriculture and FFA in high school. I had a great deal of respect and admiration for my high school ag teachers. I suppose that had a lot to do with my decision to become an agricultural science teacher myself. After teaching agriculture for 10 years, I was given the opportunity to become the principal of the local elementary school. My career path later led to serving as high school principal and then superintendent. My 33-year career in education was spent in three relatively small rural schools in northeast Texas. As a superintendent of a rural school, I became extremely frustrated with some of the policy and funding decisions that were being made in Austin. It was this frustration, coupled with a desire to serve, that sparked the decision in 2014 to run for state representative in House District 1.
Obviously, our state’s dairy families have children who attend rural public schools. What specific challenges do you see that are faced by the state’s rural school districts?
I, too, attended a rural school and, as previously mentioned, I spent my entire career serving in rural schools. Today, rural schools are facing increased challenges. In most cases, our rural schools are losing enrollment and, with the state funding system being tied directly to enrollment, this creates serious funding issues. These issues become even more pronounced as our rural schools attempt to provide the technology and other modern resources that are necessary to prepare our students for college or the modern job market. Our constitution guarantees, and I believe our rural students deserve, an equal shot at a quality education. But with the challenges facing the state budget, it is becoming more difficult for state policymakers to deliver high quality education for all Texans. Texas is growing extremely fast, and almost all of that growth is in urban areas. This process has created a Legislature that is more urbanized than ever before. I do not see it getting any easier for our rural schools in the future.
For several years, Texas public education policies attempted to prepare all students to attend college. What are your thoughts on vocational education programs as they relate to agriculture?
I am a product of vocational education and was heavily involved in vocational education throughout my career. It seems to me that our narrow focus that all students should attend college has resulted in a good number of young adults with an enormous amount of student debt and a degree that does not qualify them for a job. I believe that pendulum has begun to swing back, but it is important that we continue to bring common sense to this issue. We know there are many career opportunities in agriculture and across many other sectors of the economy that do not require a college degree. I am convinced that our community colleges and career and technical schools will be increasingly important in providing young people with the skills necessary to have successful and rewarding careers that will provide a great future for them and their families. Today, it is possible for a student to complete a vocational program in high school that will allow him or her to be certified or licensed and go directly into the workforce out of high school. This is great for the student, and it is key to keeping our economy strong.
In addition to your work on the Public Education Committee, you also sit on the very important Appropriations Committee,which crafts the state budget. Do you find writing the state budget or public education issues more challenging, and why?
I don’t know that I can say one is more challenging than the other. Both certainly have their challenges,and, in many instances, they are closely related. Many of our educational issues can best be addressed by the state funneling resources to them, which makes an educational issue into a budgeting issue. It seems to me that our work on both committees becomes a task of deciding what is important and making that the priority. Just like my home budget (except on a much, much larger scale), the state budget is our opportunity to tell the world where our priorities lie. Those things that are most important will be funded. I believe our work in education is the same basic process. We determine what is most important, and that is where we will place our funding and require our teachers to place their time. It seems unfortunate to me that we currently spend such a large amount of our money and our time on high-stakes standardized testing. I look forward to helping shift our priorities to preparing our students to be problem solvers rather than test takers.
What can we expect to see from the Texas Legislature next session in the areas of public education and the state budget?
Our budget will be tight in the next session. Some of our decisions in the previous session, coupled with the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey and the sluggish oil and gas industry, will present some real challenges to writing the budget. These funding challenges also will affect the decisions that are made in regard to public education and will have significant impactson our ability to continue to improve educational opportunities for our children, particularly in our rural areas. I look forward to working with all my colleagues to make public education the best it can be.
Do you have any other message for the Texas dairy industry?
As I mentioned in my earlier responses, Texas is becoming more urbanized every day; however, the state’s agricultural industry remains a significant part of our state’s economy. I applaud the Texas dairy industry for continuing to meet the challenge of providing safe and healthy milk and other dairy products to the world. The very things that make the dairy industry great are the things that make Texas great. We must not lose sight of that as we work to balance the demands of urban Texas with the needs of rural Texas and the agriculture industry.
Dr. Gary VanDeaver is serving his second term as state representative for House District 1, which includes Bowie, Lamar, Franklin and Red River counties. He is vice-chairman of the House Committee on Administration and also a member of the Public Education Committee and the Appropriations Committee.
Raised on a small family cattle operation near Clarksville, in Red River County, VanDeaver served as an educator for 33 years. After beginning his career as a vocational agriculture teacher, he became a school principal and completed his doctorate in educational administration. He most recently served as superintendent of New Boston Independent School District before his initial election to the Texas House in 2014.
VanDeaver and his wife, Pamela, have been married for 33 years. Their two grown daughters carry on the family tradition of public service as a school teacher and criminal prosecutor. In 2016, the VanDeavers welcomed their first granddaughter to the family. Locally, VanDeaver is involved with the Chamber of Commerce and Lions Club, having served as president of both. He also served on the boards of directors of the Texas FFA, Red River County Farm Bureau, Bogata Rodeo Association and Red River County Fair Association. The VanDeavers are members of the First Baptist Church of New Boston, where he serves as a deacon and teaches adult Sunday school.