What next for Texas Board of Education?
The continuing effort by the 15-member elective board’s current world-is-flat majority to torque textbooks on history and other subjects to reflect that group’s political views is due in no small part to how the board’s members are chosen.
They are elected from individual districts more than twice the size of the state’s congressional districts. This approach was created as an attempt at democracy, but the result has been continuing controversy.
Among proposed changes, the board has tentatively approved removing Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, from the list of writers who helped inspire revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and seeks to replace the term “capitalism” with “free-enterprise system.”
Yet another state senator – Juan Hinojosa, DMcAllen is proposing a constitutional amendment to abolish the board, and a fallback bill to cut its power over curriculum standards, high school graduation requirements and textbooks.
“They seem more focused on religious issues and their personal bias than education,” Hinojosa said.
The districts are drawn (by the Legislature) so that most lean strongly to either the Republican or Democratic party. The result is that almost all the seats are decided in the district’s dominant party primary, not the general election.
A conservative effort to take over the board eventually succeeded. And its ideological activities have brought national attention, since Texas’ size as an education market gives it extra power in deciding school materials nationwide.
Those control efforts may be weakening. Democrats in the Texas Senate blocked the two-thirds vote necessary to confirm Gov. Rick Perry’s reappointment of Don McLeroy as chairman. The Bryan dentist and creationist has led the effort to change curriculum offerings in line with his literal Biblical view.
And, McLeroy lost the Republican nomination March 2 to Thomas Ratliff of Mount Pleasant, son of former state Sen. and acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant. The elder Ratliff led a quiet legislative effort in 1995 that shifted textbook approval from the board to local school districts.
Interestingly, one of the board’s three moderate Republicans, Geraldine “Tincy” Miller of Dallas, who’s been on the board since 1984, was upset in the Republican primary by Dallas teacher George Clayton. He said he was as surprised at his victory as Miller.
Clayton, who supervises English teachers at North Dallas High School, spent little, and ran a word-ofmouth campaign that the board needed a shake-up. He said he ran because he “was embarrassed for the state of Texas” by the board’s conduct.
Ratliff and Clayton have Libertarian but no Democratic opponents in November. Both say they won’t be part of the social conservative bloc, which in January will be down to six members.
The board was created in 1949, during the Gilmer- Aikin school reform effort, to replace an elected commissioner. It had a member elected from each congressional district – 21 at the time.
By the next school reform in 1984, the board had grown to 27 members. The Legislature replaced it with a 15-member appointed board, with a provision to have it revert to an elective board in 1988.
The Legislature in 1987 put a referendum on the ballot to keep the board appointive. But voters turned it down by a 53-47 ratio. Later, the Legislature gave the governor the power to name the education commissioner, rather than have the board member choose them, and to name the board chairman rather than the board picking its own.
In 2009, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, introduced legislation to move curriculum decisions to the Texas Education Agency. Facing a 19-12 Republican Senate majority, he didn’t expect his proposal to go far, and it didn’t. But it reflected the angst the board has created among some legislators.
The board’s curriculum change efforts also have become a campaign issue for Bill White, Perry’s Democratic opponent. The former Houston mayor said Perry should show leadership by calling on the board member he named to chair the board, Republican Gail Lowe, “to send the curriculum standards back to review committees before final adoption in May.”
An Austin American-Statesman editorial put it more strongly.
“It’s not like the state’s top leadership could ignore the gales of derisive laughter the state board draws with its nasty, noisy fights about what and how Texas school children will learn,” the editorial said.
“But so far, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have been mute while the state board has dragged science and history through a looking glass that reflects poorly on Texas.”