Center of Gravity

For years Republicans have pushed the State Board of Education further to the right. Now they’re facing their biggest test—from inside their own party.

By the time you read these words, early voting in the March 2 primaries will be under way. The race for the Republican nomination for governor, involving incumbent Rick Perry, United States senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and upstart challenger Debra Medina, has attracted the most attention, as it should. The outcome will influence the future of Texas, and the three leading Republican candidates have very different ideas about that future.

An obscure group of races on the Republican primary ballot, however, may have an even greater influence on what Texas will be like fifteen or so years from now. These are battles for seats on the State Board of Education, a panel that has frequently made news in recent years—sad to say, seldom to its credit. I wrote about the SBOE in this space in September (“ Lowe and Behold”), calling it “the most dysfunctional agency in Texas government” and offering advice to new chairman Gail Lowe about how to fix it. In her brief tenure, Lowe has restored decorum and parliamentary order to the board, but its underlying problem can be fixed only at the ballot box: Too many members are hostile to public education.

The trouble is, most voters have little awareness of the importance of the SBOE, whose primary function is to determine the curriculum at all grade levels, including what courses should be taught in Texas schools, which texts should be used, and what their content should be. This mission seems simple enough. The board was once a sleepy corner of state government. The only controversies it engendered occurred when textbook critics appeared before the board to complain about statements that they perceived to be insufficiently appreciative of American values like free enterprise.

That era ended with the 1994 elections. As George W. Bush was wresting the governorship from Ann Richards, far down the ballot two Republicans aligned with evangelical groups defeated two Democratic SBOE members from East Texas. Ever since, the far right has dominated the board, if not always in votes, always in volume. Bimonthly meetings have become the stuff of legend as the far-right bloc attempts to impose its view of the American ideal on Texas students.

Fast-forward to 2010 and contemplate the reaction of David Bradley, a leader of the far-right forces, to criticism that no one on the board’s School Finance Committee, which he chairs, has any expertise in investing: “If you sit on the mental health commission,” he said, “do you have to be retarded? If you sit on the [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission], do you have

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