The State Board of Education is the most dysfunctional agency in Texas government. This is quite an achievement, considering the competition: the Texas Department of Insurance, which allows the highest home insurance rates in the land; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which changes names every few years but not its polluter-friendly policies; the Public Utility Commission, whose chairman, responding to a petition this summer to prohibit electric utilities from disconnecting low-income and elderly customers until the heat wave broke, argued that it wasn’t really unusually hot. And let us not forget the Texas Department of Transportation, which can’t abide the idea of a highway without a tollbooth on it.
But there is nothing like the idiosyncratic, bitterly divided SBOE, whose fifteen elected members are charged with overseeing public education in Texas. They decide what Texas schoolchildren are supposed to learn. They establish statewide curriculum standards. They determine whether textbooks include the required material. They set graduation requirements. They are responsible for investing the Permanent School Fund, the endowment for the public schools. They accept or reject requests to establish innovative charter schools. At least, that’s what the SBOE is supposed to do. What it has really done, for two decades or more, is argue incessantly over peripheral issues: the theory of evolution, sex education, role models for women.
For the past sixty years, the board has been composed of people from the education community: school board members, teachers, administrators. They have operated in relative obscurity and discharged their duties in a routine way. About the only time the SBOE made news was when critics like Mel and Norma Gabler, of Longview, began showing up at meetings to complain that textbooks under consideration had a liberal, anti-Christian point of view. But by the nineties, a new group of conservatives, many motivated by their religious beliefs, targeted the board for a takeover. They have been so successful that today they are the majority faction, and the SBOE has become the front line of the culture wars in Texas.
Its previous chairman, Bryan dentist Don McLeroy, waged a high-profile fight to require that science textbooks and teachers take a more critical approach to the theory of evolution. David Hillis, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Texas at Austin, helped to form a group to oppose McLeroy’s efforts, the 21st Century Science Coalition. McLeroy’s battle ultimately cost him his leadership position