Taking Politics Back to School

State Board of Ed races highlight educational tensions

Judy Jennings
Judy Jennings (Photo by Jana Birchum)

One only has to sit in the State Board of Education's boardroom and look out the window to see the literal, physical irony.

Right there, just across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a couple of blocks north, stands the University of Texas – one of Texas' two flagship universities, workplace of many of this state's most brilliant minds, who are achieving groundbreaking research in such fields as biology, physics, and history.

And right here, on this side of the window, right-wing Christian conservatives have been toiling for several years now trying to undermine, educationally and politically, much of those scholars' work.

Adding to the irony: Almost all of those professors, presuming they live and vote in the greater Austin area, are represented by two of the members most hostile to the educational establishment and their research and most committed to far-right religious ideology.

The SBOE occasionally flares into the public's consciousness, as happened during the crusade of Longview activists Mel and Norma Gabler to push the fundamentalist perspective into Texas' schools, that ran from the Sixties on into the Eighties. But generally, few Texans have much awareness that the state even has a board of education or that it is an elected body.

And the religious right appreciates that. By getting motivated voters to the polls during Republican primaries, they've been able to count on straight-ticket voting in this largely red state to win seats on the board – and an oversized hand on the educational curriculum in the state's public schools. They've used that strategy over the past decade to build a seven-member bloc on the 15-seat board – from there, all it took was convincing one of the three more moderate Republicans or even an occasional Democrat to push through their essentially fundamentalist agenda.

On the public relations side, at least, they may have finally overplayed that hand – after a series of battles that would have been comical if they didn't ultimately have such tragic consequences, the board is obscure no more. Fights over English language arts, evolution, and social studies finally drew the attention of media not only statewide but nationally and even internationally. Among the highlights: The conservative bloc inserted language into the science standards that was clearly intended to cast doubt on evolution (former board Chair Don McLeroy famously declared, "Somebody's got to stand up to these experts!"), they appointed their own uncredentialed social studies advocates (ideologically driven nonacademics) who urged that Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall be removed from social studies texts (a recommendation they ultimately rejected), and they did remove Thomas Jefferson (a major proponent of separation of church and state) from a list of Enlightenment thinkers (although Jefferson does appear in other parts of the curriculum).

That got the attention of the Legislature and the voters and sparked headlines and commentary including such phrases as "national embarrassment" and "hornet's nest."

As a consequence, change appears to be coming to the State Board of Education. But the question is how much – and will it be enough to make a difference? And another question for Austinites: Can we finally elect some board representation that more closely resembles the political leanings of this city?

Experts vs. Politics

"People are embarrassed that this small group of board members is creating a reputation for Texas that is not representative of most Texans," says former Texas Education Agency employee Judy Jennings.

The reputation to which she refers was created in large part by the single lightning-rod term of District 10 board member Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond, who became notorious for her frankly anti-public-school politics. Last year, Jennings decided to do something about it – by running for the seat herself. She's the Democratic candidate for District 10, which covers all or part of 16 counties, including Wil­liamson and Travis north of the Colorado River, and stretches to the southern and western suburbs of Houston.

The battle Jennings had anticipated with Dunbar did not materialize, however – Dunbar announced on Dec. 9, 2009, that she would not run for re-election.

That greatly changed the dynamics of the race – Democrats were salivating at the target Dunbar provided. Even on a board whose members routinely caused dropped jaws and outraged editorials, Dunbar stood out. Her infamy reached its height in 2008, when she warned on a conservative website of martial law sure to come under an Obama administration. Not long after that, she published a book in which she called public education a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion."

In the primaries, Republican voters – possibly out of disgust, possibly sensing doom, or possibly just swayed by the better-funded campaign – rejected Dunbar's chosen successor, Austin attorney Brian Russell, and overwhelmingly elected a self-styled "commonsense conservative," Georgetown educator Marsha Farney.

It was a smart move – Farney could easily sell herself as the moderate who had held the extremist at bay and one who actually has children enrolled in the public education system. She also apparently has deep pockets – almost all of the $101,875 in campaign expenditures she reported back in July came from her personal funds. She also has actual educational experience: Her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in curriculum and instruction matches up nicely against the one Jennings obtained from the same institution in educational psychology.

Farney might be in danger of blowing that moderate image, however, with a recent statement ... and a nonstatement. According to the Austin American-Statesman, she told an Independence Day weekend tea party rally, "I'd rather be here than with those America-bashing Democrats." And the Houston Chronicle's Gary Scharrer reported that when he asked her to clarify, she did not return phone calls or e-mails. That gave Jennings an easy opening to accuse Farney of being "hyper-partisan" and "pander[ing] to a fringe element."

That momentary controversy might have blown over, but now Farney and the GOP are adding fuel to the fire. The League of Women Voters tried to arrange a Sept. 28 debate between all the candidates for SBOE Districts 5 and 10 (including Libertarians Mark Loewe in the former and Jessica Dreesen in the latter) at the KLRU studios, to be moderated by Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, but Repub­lic­an Party of Texas Chair Steve Munisteri sent a letter urging Farney and District 5 incumbent Ken Mercer not to participate. Muni­steri charged that, "In Austin, the League of Women Voters should really be called the 'League of Women Democrats,'" and called for a debate held by a more "impartial and nonpartisan" sponsor. (Additionally, Mercer claimed Smith once held a fundraiser for former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean at his home. Smith – then the editor of Texas Monthly – told the Texas politics website Quor­um Report that the event was in fact not a fundraiser but a forum to which all 2004 presidential candidates, including George W. Bush, were invited, but only Dean accepted.)

Marsha Farney
Marsha Farney

Farney has since apparently clammed up on The Austin Chronicle, as well. After promising to talk with us last week – and praising the Chronicle for having been fair with our primary coverage – Farney then asked (through her assistant) that our questions be submitted via e-mail. We complied and are still waiting for a response – even after telephone and e-mail reminders.

Meanwhile, Jennings is filling the silence. "I haven't been able to understand or get any evidence that separates [Farney] from the current board," says Jennings. "She has not been willing to come out and say she would rescind the changes by this board."

Indeed, on Farney's website, her stands on "the issues" are at best vague. And in prior conversations with the Chronicle, her rejection of Dunbar and the creationists was less than forceful. Of Dunbar, she would only say: "My voice is a different voice than hers. My voice is the voice of an educator." On evolution: "My faith is not shaken by evolution. ... It should be taught as a theory."

Jennings says her major goal is "taking politics out of the classroom, and to put the experts and teachers back in charge of writing the curriculum standards. That's how we'll prepare our students for the 21st century economy."

The experts to whom she refers are in contrast to the "experts" appointed by the SBOE's far-right bloc – nonacademic ideologues such as former state Republican Party Vice Chair David Barton of the WallBuilders organization, which promotes the notion that the Founding Fathers did not endorse the separation of church and state, or pseudoscientists such as Stephen C. Meyer of the anti-evolution Dis­cov­ery Institute. These "experts" made recommendations completely at odds with the curriculum standards devised by SBOE-appointed writing teams that were actually composed of academics and education professionals.

"I think the board needs to pass some type of a rule that requires that experts be real experts," Jennings says. "You know, have university degrees and more types of expertise."

Spanking the Teachers

Alas, the theory that Republican primary voters' rejection of Brian Russell – as well as the defeat of board Chair Don McLeroy – signaled a statewide disgust with the Bible-thumping crowd doesn't hold up when looking at other results.

For ready example, moderates made no such inroads in Austin's other district, District 5. It includes all or part of 12 counties, including Travis south of the river, as well as northern San Antonio and a good chunk of the Hill Country, finally wrapping around north Austin up to Temple. It's held by former state legislator Ken Mercer of San Antonio, finishing up his first term.

Mercer, a software engineer, gladly trumpets his hostility to "fuzzy math," whole-language English, and evolution. San Antonio attorney Tim Tuggey tried to appeal to the more rational wing of the GOP – and got drubbed for his effort, winning only 31% of the vote. (Unlike Farney, who at least returned our calls once upon a time, Mercer never bothered returning the Chronicle's requests for interviews at all.)

However, he's given the public plenty of material to know exactly where he stands. He was a vocal player in the fights so far, both at board meetings and in print. He got into a fight with the San Antonio Express-News editorial board over evolution, replying to their criticisms with an op-ed filled with every long-discredited anti-evolution argument he could come up with – despite having a biology undergraduate degree from UT. (For a point-by-point refutation, see Newsdesk blog post "Dissecting Mercer's Anti-Evolution Editorial," Feb. 16, 2009.)

And when the board tossed out the work of the teacher-led writing teams for the English curriculum, he wrote another Express-News op-ed saying "they got a very well deserved spanking."

In the wake of Tuggey's defeat, it's now the task of Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau and Libertarian Mark Loewe to take on Mercer. Bell-Metereau, an English professor at Texas State University, emerged easily from a four-way primary to get her party's nomination. "It's a matter of expertise," she says of the incumbent. "He's not an educator, and so he doesn't really understand a lot of what teachers need to be able to work with the curriculum.

"So a lot of the decisions he makes are just based on ignorance about education, ignorance about how you determine curriculum. I know he's very proud of restoring phonics as the major component of the English language curriculum. There's nothing wrong with phonics, but it's just kind of an old-fashioned approach from the 1950s, which I guess is when he grew up. It's not that it doesn't work, but more recent research on what works in teaching reading has shown that there are other ways of teaching reading that work better. So he's really just so out-of-date. And certainly his quotes on all the issues, on science and practically everything, look like somebody who has a political agenda, and he doesn't know much about education." (Indeed, in a video on Mercer's website, he introduces himself as "Ken Mercer, conservative member of the Texas Board of Education.")

Sounding much like Jennings – indeed, under the guidance of veteran Democratic political strategist Alfred Stanley, the pair have practically become running mates – Bell-Metereau says among her major goals is to "re-establish some confidence in the State Board of Education, to bring it back to education issues and get it away from this political bickering and nitpicking. ... I've been to a lot of school board meetings, and I've been hearing from a lot of them that they would like to see politics out of this process, that they would like to have a teacher on the board with 30 years' experience in education."

Grading the Odds

Can Democrats realistically hope to win these districts? It's no accident Districts 5 and 10 are drawn as they are – Republican mapmakers created them with the intention of dividing the liberal Austin vote, and the strategy has been superbly effective. By dividing Travis County and diluting both its north and south halves with more conservative rural and suburban voters, Republicans have held a firm lock on these seats. In the previous two elections, only one Democrat even bothered to file – Austin's Donna Howard, now a state representative, ran in District 5 in 2002 and could muster only 38% of the vote.

In Bell-Metereau's case, it will certainly be an uphill battle. Her district bears similarities to state Sen. Jeff Wentworth's District 25 and Congressman Lamar Smith's District 21, neither of which have ever given Democrats cause to celebrate. If voters have grown weary (or are even aware of) Mercer's antics, the GOP primary results certainly didn't show it. Bell-Met­er­eau will need Democrats and independents to turn out in force for her, and past elections indicate the numbers just aren't there.

But in District 10, campaign strategist Stanley is bursting with optimism. In an e-mail, he pointed to evidence that despite the GOP's redistricting intentions, this is really a swing district. In 2008, he says, Obama took 48.2% of the vote in District 10, and Democrat Sam Houston (running for Supreme Court) got 48%; in 2006, Bill Moody (Supreme Court) won 49.8%; and in 2002, John Sharp (lieutenant governor) garnered 48.7%. "None of these candidates concentrated on winning District 10, so we believe that by working hard and focusing just on that district, Judy can get over the top," Stanley wrote.

That will have to be proven at the ballot box. Extrapolating from prior ballots is tricky – in the March primaries, Democrats only turned out 39% as many voters as Republicans in District 10, and in District 5 it was even worse: 35%. But Republicans had a hotly contested gubernatorial race driving turnout, while Dems did not.

Conversely, yes, Sam Houston did indeed have a strong showing in 2008, but Obama­mania pumped up Democratic turnout that year and pushed more than a few Democrats to wins they might not have otherwise achieved. The Obama backlash now under way might more than erase that edge.

But Jennings remains confident. "Regardless of party, people across the district want to take politics out of the classroom," she says. "Regardless of how people feel about what's happening at the federal level, this is a district composed of Texans who care about their children's education."

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State Board of Education, election 2010

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