Microscope Zooms in on Anti-Science SBOE

Legislators try to rein in controversial education board

SBOE Chair Don McLeroy: At the eye of the storm
SBOE Chair Don McLeroy: At the eye of the storm (photo by Jana Birchum)

The shit isn’t quite hitting the fan yet, but for the State Board of Education, turds are being collected and the blades are turning.

The shenanigans surrounding the SBOE in recent years, especially the past few months, have caught the eyes of lawmakers and embarrassed Texas nationwide. El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh summed it up best in last week’s Nominations Committee meeting, addressing SBOE Chair Don McLeroy of College Station:

“There are 15 bills floating around here this session – the most I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here I think seven sessions – to strip your authority, to make sure that you have, on that Board of Education, nothing to do with curriculum and nothing to with selecting textbooks. You’ve created a hornet’s nest like I’ve never seen here.”

The meeting was a hearing on whether to continue McLeroy’s tenure as chair of the board. Shapleigh can do nothing to remove the religious fundamentalist from the board – all 15 SBOE members are elected officials – but which member that heads the board is determined by gubernatorial appointment, subject to confirmation by two-thirds of the Senate (21 of 31 votes).

McLeroy – not known for backing down, even when nearly the entirety of the educational and scientific establishment tells him he's wrong – said he welcomes controversy and “I don’t mind having a hornet’s nest.”

One of the bills targeting the board came up in the House yesterday. While not explicitly targeting the educational policies of the SBOE, Austin Rep. Donna Howard’s House Joint Resolution 77 calls for a constitutional amendment, subject to ratification by voters, that would remove SBOE authority over the Permanent School Fund and place it in the hands of an appointed body of financial experts.

The bill had solid support and passed the House easily. In fact, on its first ballot, it received 99 votes, only one shy of the number needed to skip third reading and go directly to engrossment. Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, seeing an opportunity, called for a verification vote, and lo and behold, once all the members with “malfunctioning voting machines” (code for “not on the floor the first time”) were rounded up, support ticked up to 104 votes and HJR went directly to the Senate. (It remains to be seen whether it can pass that chamber and a possible Perry veto.)

Howard said her bill wasn’t necessarily aimed at recent controversies, but just out of a desire to put the fund into the hands of those with specific money management expertise. When I pointed out that several of the members weren’t particularly qualified to make education policy either, she just smiled and said, “I’m not going there.”

But Howard has gone there with other bills. Her HB 772 would require that SBOE meetings be webcast over video, not just the audio that currently exists. It passed the House unanimously and currently sits in the Senate Education Committee.

And Howard’s HB 420 would make SBOE elections nonpartisan, on the premise that the board elections get little attention (admit it, did you know we had a state board of education before you read this post?) and crazy fundamentalist candidates fly in under the radar. “Voters go to the polls armed with minimal information on the issues and end up casting their ballot based on party affiliation,” says Howard. “It’s time to encourage candidates to run more independently so voters can make informed decisions.”

(Unfortunately for Howard, the latter bill will likely be unsuccessful – she said she “didn’t see much momentum” for it at last night’s Elections Committee meeting, where it was left pending.)

McLeroy, a College Station dentist, is a self-avowed creationist who believes the earth is only about 6,000 years old. But he insists the attempts by he and the other six fundamentalists on the board to force teachers to address “weaknesses” of evolution (thankfully, it narrowly failed last month) and to push differing “theories” on the age of the universe (which, regrettably, passed) are just to foster “debate.”

“I think you’re going to get your wish,” said Shapleigh, promising to challenge McLeroy’s nomination on the Senate floor. “I think we will make that happen.”

Nominations chairman Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, told reporters after the hearing that he would be reluctant to even bring McLeroy’s nomination to the Senate floor if he doesn’t appear to have the 21 votes. “There’s no sense in doing that,” Jackson said.

McLeroy might not even get any help from his sponsor. Asked if he planned to make any special effort to save the nomination by the Houston Chronicle’s R.G. Ratcliffe, Perry was quite noncommittal: “I’ll leave that to the Senate,” he said. “I have 1,500 different appointments a year. We appoint them, they go through the process.”

UPDATE: And here's another: Patrick Rose's HB 710 is on the House calendar for May 2. It would put the SBOE under review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, although it would not allow the SBOE to be abolished by Sunset.

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