Lowe and Behold

The controversial State Board of Education has a new chair. Here’s how she can keep it from becoming the State Board of Embarrassment.

September 2009By Comments

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 when the Texas Senate, weary of his and the SBOE’s antics, adjourned in May without confirming his reappointment as chairman. Governor Rick Perry named Gail Lowe, a co-publisher for the semiweekly Lampasas Dispatch Record, to succeed him. The Texas Freedom Network, the SBOE’s most vigorous critic, has described Lowe’s supporters as believing she has “the most consistently conservative voting record of all SBOE members.”

Lowe, then, would appear to represent the continuation of the status quo. But her reputation among board watchers extends beyond her voting record. On a board that is dominated by outspoken political extremists, she is more of a listener than a fighter, low-key rather than confrontational. In the optimistic and perhaps naive belief that the SBOE may yet be able to play a constructive role in state educational policy under different leadership, I offer the following advice to the new chair.

Dear Ms. Lowe:

Congratulations on your promotion. Or should I say, “Condolences”? You have a tough job ahead of you. As you know all too well, the board is divided ideologically and politically, and most of the members with whom you have been allied would be content to see things go on exactly as they have in the past, rife with rancor. Too many of them are here for the wrong reasons—to advance their personal agendas rather than improve education in this state. (You know who they are.) Unless you change the culture of the board, the public and the politicians will finally rise up and say, “Enough is enough!” Here are six things you might consider to get the SBOE back on the right track.

Stay out of the newspapers. This applies to everyone—not just you. You work in the media business. You understand the power of public opinion. Back in 2003, you were one of four members who voted against adopting biology textbooks that failed to present the creationist point of view. You could do that sort of thing when you were just a member, but now that you are the chair, you should be aware of the effect that such a position could have. It doesn’t do the board, or Texas, any good to be arguing over evolution, creationism, and intelligent design, sending a message that a bunch of flat-earthers are in charge of educating our kids.

Let the teachers write curriculum standards. Current practice, established by law, is that the curriculum for various subjects be developed by committees that include educators, parents, and representatives of the business community. These groups determine what students are expected to know, as set forth in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills guidelines, or TEKS, which publishers are expected to incorporate in their books. Board members may, if they choose, appoint expert reviewers, who may or may not be experts but who are often picked for their ideological compatibility with board members’ viewpoints—for example, David Barton, the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and the founder of WallBuilders, which seeks “to exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by . . . educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.” These outside reviewers have a legitimate role to play, but their judgment should not override teachers with expertise in their subject areas.

Protect the integrity of the Permanent School Fund. To put it another way, keep everyone’s hands out of the cookie jar. One of the few surviving powers of the board is its responsibility for managing the $19 billion PSF. Having lost the support of the Legislature on educational matters long ago, the board received a no-confidence vote regarding its stewardship of the fund during the recent legislative session, when the House voted 104—40 for a constitutional amendment to strip the SBOE of its power to oversee the PSF. (The proposal died in the Senate.) After some inside maneuvering, the board recently voted to switch fund managers midstream, dumping R. V. Kuhns and Associates, a highly regarded firm, for a lesser-known company, even though the current contract did not expire until December 2010. You should insist that all dealings with the PSF be totally transparent and ethically pure. And while I’m on the subject, why did the board lower its experience requirements, from five years to three years, for a firm that would manage its real estate investments? Sounds like more special favors. And why is the board paying a commission to a private firm when the General Land Office has a no-cost program for real estate investments? These transactions don’t pass the smell test.

Get David Bradley under control. Bradley has been the board bully since he was first elected, in 1996. His most infamous action came when, unable to find errors that would provide his allies with a substantive justification for rejecting an algebra textbook, he ripped the cover off, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, worthless binding. I reject this book.” The conservatives fall into line behind him, and several Democrats cut deals with him. If you are going to be a successful chairman, you can’t let him run roughshod, as he did at the end of your first board meeting. You have to find some fellow members you can trust. Patricia Hardy (Weatherford) and Bob Craig (Lubbock) would be a good place to start.

Restore objectivity to textbook approval. After the conservative takeover of the SBOE, the Legislature limited its authority to reject textbooks. One of the main criteria for rejection is factual errors. Often, however, what members of the majority faction have identified as “errors” amount to ideological objections. The simple thing to do is to follow the law.

Remember, your real constituents are the schoolchildren of Texas. And a plurality of the schoolchildren of Texas are Hispanic. In 2007 the board rejected a math textbook that had proved to be effective for Hispanic students in Dallas schools. More recently, at its July meeting, the board rejected a proposed fourth-year math course designed for humanities-oriented students who don’t want to take calculus. Why did the board reject it? The story is that the development of the course was overseen by UT’s Charles A. Dana Center, an educational think tank that some conservatives regard as a hotbed of liberalism. If the SBOE does not place more of a focus on educating minorities, Texas will not have a very bright future.

There are other things that the board could do. It could insist on the teaching of real sex education instead of abstinence only (but the truth is that a lot of us muddled through without it). It could stop trying to impose Ozzie-and-Harriet lifestyles on girls, as it did when it insisted that a textbook publisher remove an image of a woman carrying a briefcase and replace it with a photo of a woman putting a cake in the oven (but the girls today know that they have many more role models than their mothers and grandmothers had). Some of the wacky moves the board has made don’t matter; you will learn when to let them have their fun and when to push them in the direction they need to go. You have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done on the SBOE for a long time: Lead.

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