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 to be a drunk?”

The partisan breakdown on the board is ten Republicans and five Democrats, but in practice, the real division is ideological, with seven far-right Republicans on one side and five Democrats and three moderate Republicans on the other. I do not toss around the term “far right” groundlessly. Here is how retiring board member Cynthia Dunbar describes the institution of public education in her recent book, One Nation Under God : a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.” Dunbar and her allies on the SBOE have given up on public education. Rather than address how to improve public schools, they seek to slay dragons—evolution, sex education, whole language, new ways of teaching math, unpatriotic depictions of Texas and American history.

The reign of the far right over the SBOE may seem to be inevitable in a red state governed by a tea party sympathizer, but it isn’t. Public education is the one area of state government that has support from a majority of Republicans across Texas. Families with children care about their kids’ schools. They want their children to learn, to graduate, to get into a good college. They may be dedicated conservatives on the subject of taxes and spending, but when it comes to their kids’ future, they are moderates. The suburbs, after all, are peopled by families who are looking for a better life, and that includes better schools. In small towns and rural areas, schools are the lifeblood of the community.

In a typical election season, hardly anyone outside the education community and the far right pays close attention to SBOE races. This year, however, retirements and contested primaries have created openings for moderate candidates to win seats. Three races feature head-to-head matchups of moderate Republican challengers against far-right stalwarts; if the moderates can win two of them, the balance of power will shift.

This primary election, then, represents the best chance in years to elect an SBOE majority that supports public schools. The signature race is in District 9, which runs from Brazos County north to the Red River between the Metroplex and the Piney Woods. It pits Bryan dentist Don McLeroy, the former chairman of the SBOE, against Thomas Ratliff, a Capitol lobbyist from Mount Pleasant and the son of former lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff.

McLeroy lost his chairmanship last year when state senators blocked his reappointment. He painted a target on his back by advocating new standards for teaching evolution that, as he puts it in a campaign letter, “scientifically question evolution [and] the origin of life.” His campaign literature begins with the assertion, “Our nation is falling under the sway of the ideas of the far-left; the founding principles of our nation are being neglected and forgotten. . . . My opponent has already identified himself as a MODERATE and he is running with the support of the left.”

Ratliff is the kind of Republican who used to run for the SBOE before the board became bogged down in the culture wars: a civic-minded parent who had been active in his children’s education. “I disagree with my opponent on two fundamental things,” he writes on his Web site . “I believe in public schools and trust those involved in our public schools to know what is best for our children’s education. I believe that . . . the SBOE can have healthy discussions and even disagreements without the members stooping to vindictive behavior.”

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