Dems Block McLeroy Nomination to SBOE Chair

Controversial creationist fails to get two-thirds of Senate support

(Former) State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station
(Former) State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station (photo by Jana Birchum)

The controversial tenure of Bryan dentist and ardent creationist Don McLeroy as chairman of the State Board of Education is over. In a vote on the Senate floor about two hours ago, Gov. Rick Perry’s nomination of McLeroy to continue in the chair failed to muster the two-thirds support needed. The vote was along party lines: All 19 Republicans supported McLeroy, 11 Democrats voted against, and Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville registered as present but not voting.

Reached by phone afterwards, McLeroy’s first reaction was “that’s wonderful!” – to the fact that all 19 Republicans voted for him. “But obviously I’m disappointed over the final vote.”

Senators opposing McLeroy noted that they didn’t really have a problem with him as a person, just his leadership style, and true to form, McLeroy was gracious: “I’m really thankful” for the tenure, he said. “It’s been a privilege to serve, not many people get to do this. I even thank the Democrats. They met with me, they were polite, and they listened to me. I’m thankful for their consideration.”

The action does not remove McLeroy from the board – he is elected to represent District 9 on the 15-member board. But the governor chooses which member chairs the SBOE meetings.

McLeroy was first elected to the board in 1998 and nominated chairman by Perry in 2007.

Fights over curriculum standards for English language and science between an extremely conservative seven-member bloc versus three moderate Republicans and five Democrats made national headlines during his chairmanship. Partially successful attempts by creationists to insert language into teaching standards questioning evolution drew condemning newspaper editorials and the ire of the scientific community.

“I rise today … not because Dr. McLeroy is not a good man,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of Laredo in a floor speech. “He’s a decent man. He’s a good man. … My opposition to the chairman of our State Board of Education has to do with his management ….

“We’ve been amazed at the divisiveness and the dysfunctionality of the board,” Van de Putte continued. “Under this chairman’s leadership, I’m afraid our State Board of Education has been ridiculed and become the laughingstock of the nation.”

Van de Putte and other Democrats then laid out explicit complaints with McLeroy’s tenure, including charges that the board violated state law when it rejected a set of textbooks because of ideological differences with them, and that he ignored the advice of world-class scientific and educational experts in formulating science standards.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, then defended McLeroy apparently without having heard a word of it.

“To say someone is not qualified to be on the State Board of Education as chairman because the New York Times or the Washington Post criticizes them is ridiculous,” said Ogden. “Now, it might not be so ridiculous if we analyzed what the specific criticism was, or [what] the facts are, but we haven’t done that.”

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, acknowledged in his floor speech that even sending the nomination back to Gov. Perry doesn’t guarantee another less controversial member will get offered up. There are no shortage of inflammatory, anti-science types on the board to keep the Christian right happy, including Richmond’s Cynthia Dunbar (who represents northern Travis County – including, ironically, UT – in her district). Dunbar drew notice last year with editorials warning of martial law if Obama was elected and a book calling public education a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion."

“Some have said to me privately, ‘If you think you’ve had problems with this one, you just wait until you see what comes next,’” Ellis said. “But the constitution doesn’t give us the ability to tell a governor who he can choose; the constitution gives the ability to give a governor advice, and if he takes [the] advice, then two thirds of us give the governor consent.”

Asked what led to his fall from the chair, McLeroy said it was because he took on controversial issues and was outspoken. His critics have charged that it was he who made them controversial, to which he responded, "It's just not true."

Part of the controversy, he said, was because "science education is a culture war issue." Asked who was the aggressor in that war, McLeroy said, "Two years ago when I become chairman, the first question I got from a reporter was about evolution. I said wait, we're not even done with English language arts. Clearly the aggressor was the evolution side."

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Education, State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, 81st Legislature

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