The Austin Chronicle

SBOE: A Green Challenge?

By Lauri Apple, October 18, 2002, News

Lesley Nicole Ramsey wants you to know that, contrary to what some confused locals believe, she's not a thong-wearing transvestite in a tiara. As the Green Party candidate for the State Board of Education's District 10 seat, Ramsey has heard through the grapevine that some voters think Cynthia Thornton, District 10's GOP incumbent, is running against downtown Austin denizen and two-time mayoral candidate Leslie Cochran. The mix-up has provided inspiration for an upcoming Ramsey campaign T-shirt slogan: "No, Not That Leslie."

Without gobs of money to buy ads and name recognition (it's against Green Party policy to accept corporate contributions), or time away from her full-time job (as a women's health care advocate) to travel across the district, Ramsey is relying on individual donors, group endorsements, and volunteers to win support as Nov. 5 approaches. (District 10 includes the northern half of Travis Co., and stretches northeast to Milam Co., down the Brazos River to Brazoria Co. on the coast, and south to DeWitt Co.) Meanwhile Thornton, a retired schoolteacher and rancher elected two years ago, says she isn't doing any fundraising. "It's clear that she doesn't think she's facing a real opponent," says Ramsey, adding that winning Travis Co. precincts alone would constitute at least a moral victory.

An outspoken feminist and social justice activist, Ramsey says she's running to provide an alternative, progressive voice in a race for a board that has been dominated by right-wing ideologues for years and will remain so post-November. She opposes using public funds for private religious school education, and supports existing state law that limits the number of charter schools and imposes minimum requirements for teacher certification, sex education, school health clinics, and Title IX programs, among other things. Though her experience as an educator pales in comparison to Thornton's 31 years teaching economics and government, Ramsey earned teaching time as a grad student and instructor at UT. Interestingly, she attended school in the same district where Thornton taught. "I noticed then that some things definitely could have been better," Ramsey says.

If elected, Ramsey says she would lobby the media to closely follow the board's activities, which include textbook selection, curriculum development, and management of the $17.4 billion dollar Permanent School Fund for education services. Of the board's 15 members, each representing 1.4 million Texans, 10 are Republicans -- split into "moderate" and "extremist" camps. Several right-wing members won elections with help from San Antonio super-funder James Leininger, whom Ramsey calls "a force behind sabotaging a lot of things I care about."

Compared to Leininger and his protégés, Thornton -- who serves as the board's secretary -- is middle of the road, according to moderate GOP legislators like Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. Yet she harbors many of the conservative views about family and religion endorsed by her more radical colleagues. In the spring of 2000, for example, she told the right-wing Austin Review that she supports teaching creationism in biology classes and displaying the Ten Commandments in schools, and opposes bilingual education, sex education, counseling on homosexuality, and school health clinics, which she called "government controlled, pre-abortion" offices.

"I don't like 'moderate,' but 'independent,'" Thornton recently told the Chronicle. "I'm not joining any agenda or cause." Meanwhile, the agendas and causes of her board peers have attracted much unwanted attention during the past few years and have provoked the Legislature to gradually curtail the SBOE's power. Last summer, the board drew fire for rejecting an advanced placement science textbook some members deemed disrespectful towards the two pillars of modern conservative thought, Christianity and capitalism. Next month, the board will vote to adopt social studies textbooks; over the summer, the Texas Freedom Network organized the "I Object!" campaign to attract parents and concerned citizens opposed to censorship to the board's public hearings. As for the SBOE's management of the Permanent School Fund, two current members and a former member were indicted in August for participating in a meeting at Katz's Deli, where they were joined by three financial advisers -- an alleged violation of the open meetings law.

While Ramsey doesn't oppose the Legislature's attempts to limit the board's authority, such efforts don't sit well with Thornton. She acknowledges that the board's reputation has been damaged by controversy and ideological infighting, but also says she's "very concerned" that the board will lose oversight of the fund. Thornton also believes that many of the board's current problems could be resolved if members were required to have a background in education and/or investing. Only a few of her current colleagues -- including GOP member Dan Montgomery (whose Dist. 5 includes Austin south of the river) and newly elected Republican Pat Hardy -- have any teaching experience. "I serve and sit beside people who are dentists," Thornton says. "I personally would not run for the state board if I did not have my educational background."

Thornton says she doesn't consider running for the board a partisan matter, but as long as members are elected -- unusual compared to boards in other states -- the board will remain politicized. Given that no Democrats are running in Dist. 10, several local Dem groups have lined up behind Ramsey. Ramsey, in turn, says she has mixed feelings about Greens running against progressive Democrats. While the Dist. 5 race features Green candidate Irene Meyer Scharf, Ramsey says she's also supportive of Democrat Donna Howard's bid.

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