Creationist McLeroy Booted From SBOE Chair

Senate Dems successfully block Perry's nomination

State Board of Education member Don McLeroy failed to win Senate confirmation as board chair.
State Board of Education member Don McLeroy failed to win Senate confirmation as board chair. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The controversial tenure of Bryan dentist and ardent creationist Don McLeroy as chair of the State Board of Education is over. Last week, Gov. Rick Perry's nomination of McLeroy to continue in the chair failed to muster the two-thirds support needed in the Senate. The vote was along party lines: All 19 Republicans supported McLeroy, 11 Democrats voted against, and Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville was present but not voting. Reached by phone afterward, 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." 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."

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 chair by Perry in 2007. (At press time Wednesday, moderate Republican and lobbyist Thomas Ratliff – son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff – announced he would challenge McLeroy in the 2010 primary. "The SBOE has become a distraction to our neighborhood schools and a liability to the Republican Party under the leadership of Dr. McLeroy," Ratliff said in a press release.)

Fights over curriculum standards for Eng­lish language and science between an extremely conservative seven-member bloc vs. 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 San Antonio 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. 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 sending the nomination back to Perry doesn't guarantee that another, less controversial member will get offered up. There is 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, the University of Texas). Dunbar drew notice last year with editorials warning of martial law if Barack Obama were 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 became 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."

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said, "We're disappointed that the Texas Senate failed to confirm an independently elected state official, a true leader, selfless public servant, and U.S. Army veteran to oversee one of our state's most important responsibilities, educating Texas children." She said there's no word yet on who Perry might choose now.

Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, an anti religious-right group that led the fight against McLeroy, was ecstatic. "Since Dr. McLeroy became SBOE chair, the body has acted kind of like a sinking ship," she said after the vote. "Today the Senate acted to put a new captain on that ship, which is a necessary first step to restore Texans' faith that kids' interests are going to be put ahead of politics by the SBOE in the future." Miller didn't state a preference for a replacement but said: "There are a number of members of the state board that have experience in public education, and who have actually sent their children to public schools at the very least, and have demonstrated a general willingness to set culture-war battles and partisan politics aside and do what's right for Texas kids. The governor has sufficient numbers on the state board to choose from."

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State Board of Education, 81st Legislature, Don McLeroy, Texas Freedom Network

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