IN MID-JULY, WHILE MANY TEXAS kids were off at camp or lazing around the pool, the fifteen members of the State Board of Education (SBOE) meditated on their future. At one of the year’s more rancorous sessions, they met to hash out core curriculum guidelines for grades K through twelve: Twenty-nine witnesses testified while board members barraged them with questions and argued with one another. All the while, reporters furiously took notes, and as usual they were primarily interested in just one person: Donna Ballard, a first-term GOP board member from the Woodlands. The 46-year-old homemaker was happy to give them a soundbite. After restating her position on the guidelines (“Not explicit enough, not rigorous enough”), she complained that board chairman Jack Christie—a fellow Republican—was effectively forcing the SBOE to approve them. “I just want the public to take note of where it’s coming from,” she said, cocking her head at Christie.

As the de facto leader of the board’s arch-conservative wing, Ballard is no stranger to confrontation. Indeed, since her election in 1994 she has been constantly on the attack. Other Republicans, she complains, supported a board reorganization that eliminated the curriculum-oversight committee she chaired. The media, she insists, have focused too much on her personal life. She lashed out at Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock for suggesting that the SBOE be appointed rather than elected; she hissed in a Houston Chronicle op-ed that Governor George W. Bush has “embraced the education establishment.”

Ballard’s combativeness has not gone unchallenged: The Austin American-Statesman’s Dave McNeely has compared her to “fingernails on a blackboard,” and an editorial in the Woodlands Sun, a community paper in her district, called her “an embarrassment.” But such criticism seems only to energize Ballard. “Going after the education establishment is not a primary focus of mine,” she said, “but I’m willing to do that when their direction is in violation of what the people of Texas want.” To that end she has instructed schools in her district to feel free to reject the health and sex education textbooks adopted by the state because they contain “highly controversial and offensive sections.” She has accused the Texas Education Agency of backing a federal plan to radically restructure education that would “do away with all of our freedoms and rights.” She has even called for the abolition of Texas’ standardized testing system; “nobody seems to like it,” she says, except those who “profit from its distribution.”

Not surprisingly, such pronouncements have put Ballard at odds with the SBOE’s six Democrats, who support the health texts and the testing system. They point to her warm relationship with the San Antonio—based Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative group that supports school vouchers, as proof that she opposes the concept of public education. “There are people on the board who really care about the state of public education in Texas,” said Alma Allen, a Houston Democrat, “but that is not her thrust.”

If the Democrats dislike her, the three conservatives on the board not allied with her faction flat out distrust her. Christie, Monte Hasie of Lubbock, and Geraldine Miller of Dallas generally share the Democrats’ views on testing and textbooks (though Hasie disapproves of the health text) and take issue with Ballard’s unwillingness to compromise. “The priority of children and a better education are not her priorities,” said Christie, who supported Ballard until she backed an ultra-conservative challenger for his seat last year. Miller, the board’s senior Republican, said she’s simply puzzled by Ballard: “I don’t know where she comes from or where she’s going.”

Where she comes from, it turns out, is California. Although she brags on extended-family roots in Texas—her grandparents are Austin natives—Ballard was born Donna Ruth Farrer in Los Angeles in 1950. At age twenty she dropped out of college to marry the Reverend Mark Ballard, a Pentecostal preacher. Over the next two decades the Ballards had four children and moved to Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., as Mark took on various ministries and even ran a small Bible college. Donna, meanwhile, shelved her plans to become a psychiatrist so she could raise her family.

In 1990 the elders of Grace Community Church in Clearlake invited Mark to found a congregation near Houston, and the Ballards moved to Texas. At first Donna was going to finish her bachelor’s degree, but then she was contacted by Robert Offutt, a San Antonio dentist and conservative member of the SBOE. Offutt had heard about her through the network of Republican women’s clubs and wanted her to run against incumbent Democrat Mary Knotts Perkins in November 1994. Although Ballard had no political experience, her campaign had money: She raised more than $100,000, mostly through contributions of $100 or less but also from wealthy contributors like San Antonio millionaire James Leininger; his wife, Ceceilia, gave $2,500, and he had one of his political-action committees finance a mailing that alleged that Perkins advocated “teaching” homosexuality in the schools. Ballard’s campaign had a message too: a return to traditional values of the sort trumpeted at the time by the GOP’s Contract With America. Like many Republicans nationwide, she cruised to an easy victory, pulling down 60 percent of the vote.

Because she was essentially unknown, Ballard’s arrival in office was met with suspicion. So concerned were her opponents that a group of them—educators and activists, mostly—hired a private investigator to look into her background. The investigator’s report, completed in January 1995, shows past addresses and no criminal convictions, but not much else. Ballard’s only previous paid employment was with an insurance company in the seventies. Other than that, most of her work was as a volunteer in ministries led by her husband’s work—hence her status as “adjunct professor” at the Bible college he ran (she headed up an organization for students’ spouses).

Perhaps Ballard’s life of essentially uncompensated work prepared her for SBOE service, which is unpaid and comes with no staff. Unlike many of her fellow members, Ballard works her position full-time, traveling constantly to make personal appearances. She also raises money full-time—almost $15,000 in the first half of this year—which allows her to pay the salary of an office manager. Still, Ballard has come under fire for using a state-issued telephone calling card. According to the Houston Chronicle, she logged more than $1,200 in phone charges in the first five months of 1997, compared with about $160 for Christie. Ballard retorts that she’s simply carrying out her duties conscientiously.

Lately the talk about Ballard has focused on her future: Will she resign—as rumored—and move to Midland, where her husband now heads a congregation, or will she seek statewide elective office? Perhaps Democrat Nick Lampson’s congressional seat—the one previously held by another controversial conservative, Steve Stockman? All she’ll say is that she’d like to remain in public life. “I’ve found something that I enjoy very much,” she said. So what would her chances be? “I wouldn’t count her out,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based consultant to Democrats and Republicans. “She’s definitely a lightning rod.”