Conservative Christians Target Texas Board of Education
Five of nine Republicans on the SBOE are right-wing Christians who tend to stick close together, and they're looking for at least three more to join them this election season. Their influence first swelled two years ago, during the putative "Republican Revolution" of 1994. For example, two moderate-to-downright-conservative East Texas Democrats, Mary Perkins and Patsy Johnson, battled vicious salvos against their reputations and characters, and spent most of their time fighting allegations they were moral degenerates and "anti-family extremists." Both were ousted in a demoralizing brawl from their SBOE seats by well-funded, arch conservative Republicans Donna Ballard and Randy Stevenson.
The same fury was brought to bear on the SBOE board chairman, conservative Houstonite Jack Christie, during the 1996 primary season. He narrowly fended off a challenge from a more- Republican-than-thou, Christian Coalition-allied housewife, Terri Leo. Why? Christie, in a fit of lunacy, had broken ranks and voted to allow Texas to participate in Goals 2000, a federal program that awards money to states based on the states' promises to strive toward goals for improving education. Christie's support for Goals 2000 meant accepting $29 million in federal education funds -- an action that even Gov. George W. Bush indicated he was comfortable with, by the way, especially since the Texas Education Agency had secured assurances from the feds that the state had carte blanche over the funds.
And if all this seems puzzling, know this: Conservative groups are so rabidly, fervently, anti-Goals 2000 that the U.S. Dept. of Education spends a large chunk of its time defending itself against the misinformation these groups busily disseminate through direct mail and Christian radio. Some favorite anti-Goals 2000 buzzwords include: Federal takeover of your child's school! Government surveillance of your family's activities! Condoms! Promoting the homosexual lifestyle! And those are just a few.
Progressives pressed for drastic action to keep Leo off the board, and the most unlikely supporters of Christie emerged to do just that. The state's education community was treated to the astonishing sight of Christie (who barely approaches "moderate," never mind liberal) nervously yukking it up at his fundraiser with representatives of teachers' groups and other bastions of Democratic support (who have never harbored great love for Christie). Since he drew no Democratic opponent, the primary season was do-or-die for Christie; he just barely did it.
Thus, keeping a watchful eye on these lower-profile races is not without reason. Elsewhere around the state, at least three of the seven SBOE races are notable. Christian Coalition-affiliated Richard Neill, a Ft. Worth dentist who gained national attention for running the Donahue show off the air in his community, is expected to have an easy time getting by Democrat Robert Platt and scoring an open seat on the board.
Observers say that Republican, über-conservative ringleader Bob Offutt may well win his San Antonio-area seat again, but not without a spirited fight from opponent Nettie Ruth Bratton, a retired teacher. Offutt has been criticized recently for breaking with a long-standing tradition against SBOE members' involvement with other SBOE candidates' campaigns and has recruited and/or endorsed other GOP, Christian Coalition-backed candidates such as Charlie Weaver, a newcomer to the edu-political arena who is looking to represent 15 Central Texas counties, including our own Travis County.
Weaver, 59, is challenging four-term board veteran and moderate Democrat Will Davis, 66, who is running again for his District 10 seat in November. Davis has drawn a conservative Republican opponent in Weaver, but the straight-ticket Democratic voting (especially in Travis County) and Davis' incumbency makes him a likely -- but by no means certain -- victor. Although less than a month remains, the race has yet to turn into the kind of fisticuffs seen around the state recently.
At least at this writing, the Davis/Weaver race remains a low-key, genteel affair. Those who know Davis say they wouldn't expect anything else. Davis, an Austin attorney, has a long, unpaid record of dedication to public life. He was on the AISD Board of Trustees for 16 years (and was president for six of them); a northwest Austin elementary school is named for him. He was also an officer in the state and national school board associations. He first served on the SBOE from 1983-84; he returned in 1988 and has held his seat ever since. "I know the issues better than anybody," Davis says, "and I want to continue to serve."
Davis has raised a little over $42,000 this year, and will spend most of it on newspaper and radio ads. His contributors' list contains the names of many of the state's most important and powerful political figures. He says he favors sexuality education that's age-appropriate, and is categorically against diverting public funds to private schools in the form of vouchers. He has always been in favor of participating in Goals 2000. Davis has proven himself as the total public school animal -- and it rankles him greatly that several of his fellow SBOE members either home-school their children or send them to private schools.
Some consider Davis one of the better-prepared members at board and committee meetings, and the one who has the best sense of which issues on the agenda merit protracted board study, and when it's time to move on. "He's such a reasonable voice on the board," said Sandy Kibby, a legislative consultant. "A lot of people would almost want to give up if he's defeated."
Currently, the SBOE is in the throes of reviewing the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) -- 2,000 pages of K-12 curriculum guidelines in 16 subject areas. Davis favors a less proscriptive approach than his conservative counterparts, believing the board can establish what students should learn, but schools must figure out how they'll teach it.
But even as the SBOE divests itself from some powers, another one was stripped from it -- authority over textbook content. When conservatives derailed the health textbook adoption in 1993-94, Davis led the compromise effort to resolve the matter, but it proved to be only a short-term solution to a larger problem: the SBOE's penchant for meddling. In an attempt to welcome back reputable publishers of quality textbooks -- many of whom were soured on doing business in Texas after SBOE members presented some 1,100 requests for changes -- Texas lawmakers curtailed the SBOE's regulatory authority over the content of books.
Conservatives on the board howled, and asked for an attorney general's opinion (it has yet to arrive). For his part, Davis says he also regrets the loss of SBOE oversight on textbooks -- but for a different reason -- the quality of books improve under a strong, centralized adoption process, he says. (Conservatives are mainly interested in warning parents about objectionable material.)
Surprisingly, Weaver, a Spicewood resident and retired executive of Hoechst Celanese, a global chemical company, has no prior involvement in public schools. When asked why he is interested in taking on an experienced opponent like Davis, Weaver replied: "This is the office that can have an immediate impact on the quality of education that Texas kids are going to get." He's concerned that test scores are too low and that schools are straying from their prime directive of delivering the academics first. "Textbooks should reflect Texas values," reads his campaign literature. Weaver says he is not a member of the Christian Coalition, however.
Weaver's in favor of "school choice," which he says could include experimenting with vouchers. Why? Data favorable to the pro-voucher position has finally been generated. And just as competition is essential to the business world, so it should go with education. "As long as a school is a virtual monopoly, there's only a limited amount of progress that you can really expect," Weaver says. But he sent his own children to public schools, and declares that public schools "are the rock this country is going to lean on."
According to the most recent contribution and expenditure reports, as of July 15, Weaver had raised a little over $40,000 and spent just over $45,000 since the beginning of the year. Former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, a neighbor in Weaver's Lake Travis neighborhood, has signed on as an honorary campaign chairman. Weaver's contributors include familiar faces from the state and local conservative political scene, as well as a political action committee known as A+PAC for Parental School Choice, funded almost entirely by James Leininger, an ultra-conservative, San Antonio multi-millionaire who's been pumping thousands into other Republican SBOE candidates' campaigns for the last two years.
Quizzed about the aforementioned hot-button issue for many conservatives -- Goals 2000 -- Weaver replied, "I don't really have a real strong position on Goals 2000, exactly... We're not talking about half of our [school] budget... People need to recognize that." But Weaver's own campaign literature indicates he's a bit more concerned than that: "...members of the [SBOE] sided with [Bill] Clinton and adopted Goals 2000... Charlie is committed to reversing [it]. It's time to stop the federal takeover of Texas schools."
Aside from this bit of disingenuousness, Weaver hasn't exhibited any malice; he seems an intelligent enough man, simply operating with a deficit of facts. For example, he told the Chronicle that Davis was the only SBOE member to vote against setting aside money for spelling textbooks, even though teachers were asking for them. Minutes of that particular board meeting show that Davis did in fact vote to buy spellers (he did have misgivings about doing so, however).
Weaver also alleges that Davis has been a supporter of whole-language reading instruction in Texas. Davis says that's not true. He favors a dual approach to teaching reading to children, depending on their needs; in any case, Texas has never gone whole hog for whole-language, as other states have done. After Goals 2000, the phonics-versus-whole-language debate takes a close second in the hearts of many conservatives. Basically, phonics teaches kids to sound out the words, and whole-language is meant to help them derive meaning. Christian Right-wingers insist that whole language instruction leaves children unable to read.
A third-party challenger, retired educator, former art gallery owner, and one-time radio actress Catherine Randolph, has entered the race representing the Natural Law party. By her own admission, Randolph, 84, isn't a very serious candidate -- she's neither actively stumping nor raising funds for her own race, but has been registering voters and working on the U.S. Senate campaign for Victor Morales. Drafted to run for the SBOE by the fledging political group, Randolph readily admits she doesn't know much about their philosophy, but she finds the people educated and interesting. "It's a very idealistic group, but not very practical," she says. "I'm a yellow dog Democrat." Although Randolph's experience as a secondary school teacher and college professor is deep, she isn't especially well-versed in a lot of the education issues of the day -- except one: "I am dead set against vouchers," she says emphatically.
So while many voters stifle yawns when asked to pay attention to the uncompensated, thankless elected officials on the SBOE, both ends of the political spectrum are riveted. Races like Travis County's District 10 are about more than deciding who will guide Texas public education, they represent an often fruitful battleground for control of the schools by the Christian Right -- no matter how stealth the candidates.