All the Right Moves

Who Will Control Texas' Controversial State Board of Education?

All the Right Moves
By Doug Potter

Given the recent controversies ignited by influential Christian conservatives on the State Board of Education, one might have expected to see Democrats rushing to defend Austin's District 10 seat from Republican encroachment. Blame it on the economic gold rush, perhaps, that no one did -- not until former Eanes school board member Donna Howard stepped up at the last minute.

No one asked her to run for the seat, Howard says, but she "didn't want to see it just given away." Howard is up against Republican Cynthia Thornton, a retired schoolteacher from Round Top who knocked off well-oiled right-winger Bob Schoolfield in the spring runoff election thanks to a boost from Republican state legislators who anointed her the "moderate" candidate. But Howard says Thornton, a devout Christian, would quickly fall in with the board's religious bloc, which has tried to censor textbooks, has pushed for more phonics instruction, and suspects school counselors of being Clintonian bugaboos.

Groups who watchdog the religious right's political agenda agree, citing as evidence Thornton's responses on questionnaires distributed by the Texas Eagle Forum, the Texas Christian Coalition, and the Free Market Foundation. On those surveys, Thornton indicates strong support for teaching creationism in biology classes, for displaying the Ten Commandments in schools, and for scrapping bilingual education; meanwhile, she opposes sex education and counseling on homosexuality.

Thornton's responses, in fact, are identical to Schoolfield's. And her willingness to even fill in the questionnaires, which are little more than rhetorical testaments to the party line, shows where Thornton's loyalties lie, says Texas Freedom Network director Samantha Smoot.

"Due to the circumstances of the primary runoff campaign, many voters are under the mistaken impression that Thornton is a moderate Republican, and nothing could be further from the truth," says Smoot.

But Thornton, who has been quoted as saying she is a "conservative person" but not an "extreme anything," responds that her support for religious ideas has been misunderstood. Thornton says she doesn't advocate creationism or prayer in school, but adds that if individual school districts want to promote those things, the state education board has no business interfering. Her guiding principle, she says, would be upholding the laws that guarantee local districts freedom from the state's control.

"I have chosen to be a Christian, but I do understand that we have to live within the Constitution ... What I would choose for my children as a mother, and what I would approve as a board member might be two different things," says Thornton. She does believe, however, that school health clinics should not be allowed to provide "government-controlled, pre-abortion" services on campus.

Howard and Thornton bring diametrically opposed backgrounds to the District 10 race. Howard worked as a health care educator until she retired to raise her children; later, she got involved with the Eanes district and helped form a parents' group to oppose the religious right's influence on local school boards. Howard says she doesn't oppose spontaneous, student-led prayer in schools, but she is ardently against allowing schools to broadcast prayers at sporting events. Like Thornton, Howard says she believes schools should teach and uphold strong values, but that those shouldn't be couched in a particular theology. "If we use common sense, we can really incorporate the kind of values we all share. ... This is a pluralistic society based on common values."

Thornton, who taught U.S. government in public schools for more than 30 years and helped write curriculum for Advanced Placement courses, speaks with homespun directness about truth and honesty. She and her husband now raise donkeys on a small ranch in Fayette County.

Both candidates support tough standards and "accountability." But where Howard talks the modern education lingo of whole-language learning and individual focus, Thornton emphasizes back-to-basics reform. She believes phonics instruction is crucial, opposes social promotion, and says students deserve to know the truth about this country's founding fathers -- which means, in her view, that they were religious revolutionaries. "Historical documents have God in them whether you like it or not," Thornton says. Thornton also emphasizes a return to physical education and the continuation of traditional vocational classes such as woodworking, agriculture, and shop.

Thornton and Howard are battling for a seat on a board that has become ground zero in the religious right's crusade to impose its notions of Christian values on public school students and roll back the influence of government bureaucracy. In April, voters in the Republican primary dealt the religious faction on the board a major defeat when ringleader Bob Offutt, who publicly denounced presidential candidate George W. Bush for being too soft in his opposition to abortion, was ousted by moderate Republican Dan Montgomery.

But religious conservatives are still only a couple of seats shy of holding a majority on the board. Last spring, that faction threw its weight into the selection of school textbooks, tossing aside millions of dollars worth of reading primers because they weren't made up of at least 80% phonics exercises. Conservatives' efforts to reassign control of the $18 billion Permanent School Fund from the Texas Education Agency to external managers has also led to potential conflicts of interest, according to the State Auditor's Office, which criticized the board for violating open meetings laws when selecting investment firms to manage a portion of the fund.

William Tryon, the political consultant whom Texas Senator Bill Ratliff hired to mastermind Thornton's victory over Schoolfield in the Republican runoff, says Ratliff and other influential legislators got behind Thornton because, unlike Schoolfield, she showed no allegiance to the religious clique on the board. "She wants to come to the State Board of Education and work together in trying to end the kind of divisiveness that the state board has seen for the last several years," Tyron says. "She's ready to be friends with everyone on the board."

In fact, Thornton served as a bit of a pawn in a retaliatory strike against Schoolfield, a major funder of the Free Enterprise PAC, which backed candidates attempting to oust "liberal" Republican House members such as Tommy Merritt, Kim Brimer, and Dennis Bonnen. The Free PAC Five prevailed in their re-election bids, however, and subsequently set their sights on scuttling Schoolfield's campaign, pumping nearly $15,000 into Thornton's coffers.

Since Thornton's runoff victory, however, the big guns have shied away from her candidacy, leaving Thornton to raise money for the general election on her own. Howard says that shortly after she filed for the District 10 race, she ran into Sen. Ratliff and told him she was running. "He kind of laughed and said he was going to leave the rest of this race up to the voters of the district," says Howard.

Ratliff says he doesn't recall that conversation, but says his prime reason for supporting Thornton was the same as his reason for helping Montgomery defeat Offutt -- to break up "that clique that was doing damage to the board."

"I did some checking on Cynthia Thornton to find out what her predisposition was, and found out that she was a teacher, had a head on her shoulders, and wouldn't be part of any group," says Ratliff.

Smoot says she doubts Ratliff and other centrist Republicans are particularly interested in Thornton's candidacy now that they've made their point against the more radical factions of the party. Tryon denies that, saying that he'll be hitting up the same donors that helped propel Thornton to a runoff victory again down the home stretch of the campaign.

But if Thornton has been abandoned by her political godfathers, Howard never had any to begin with. She's raised nearly all her $20,000 in $100-$200 donations and has not retained a consultant. Her biggest advantage, Howard says, is the allegiances she formed with Republicans during her time as an Eanes school board member. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Cynthia Thornton, Donna Howard, State Board of Education, Bob Offutt, Dan Montgomery, Bob Schoolfield, Bill Ratliff, Samantha Smoot, Texas Freedom Network, William Tyron, Texas Education Agency

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