Local Democrats Take Another Shot at Education Board
Third time's a charm?
Texas State Board of Education candidate Judy Jennings just wants to get out of the 1600s. The local Democrat and Northwest Austin resident is mounting her third challenge for a spot on the statewide education board to – as she puts it – get teachers and students into the current century.
"The biggest thing I'm advocating for is to move the education system in Texas into the 21st century. There's so much research as to what types of education practices are beneficial to students, but we don't even have time to talk about them because we are wasting all our time talking about 17th century issues, like debating evolution," said Jennings. "I'd like to help us move forward, not backward."
Over the years, the board has attracted national attention for its many high-profile controversies including politically biased social studies curriculum standards, advocating to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, as Jennings alluded to, and most recently, a debate over racist Mexican-American textbooks (see "Teaching Truthiness," Sept. 16). Often mired in the culture wars, it's easy to forget the SBOE's actual duties, which include overseeing the state's Permanent School Fund, setting curriculum standards, adopting instructional materials, and establishing graduation requirements for more than 5 million public school students.
This November, northern Travis County residents will pick between Jennings and Republican incumbent Tom Maynard, R-Georgetown, while southern Travis voters will have the option of GOP incumbent Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau, or Libertarian Ricardo Perkins. With a history of ultra-conservative board members proudly standing up to scholarly experts, the Dem candidates are touting their education chops.
Jennings, the director of assessment with Resources for Learning, a group that focuses on development and evaluation of standards-based educational reforms, previously worked at the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas Measurement and Evaluation Center. She holds a doctorate in educational psychology from UT-Austin and specializes in assessing education data and school accountability models – a wonky pursuit she discusses with enthusiasm. If elected, Jennings says she wants to shift students and teachers to project-based learning, a pushback to the overemphasis on high-stakes and often superficial standardized testing, which she considers an "unintended consequence" of the school accountability movement. "Students should be collaborating to learn not just the answers to test questions but the content of a subject," said Jennings.
Beside the fact she has two grandsons in Texas public schools, Jennings is making another attempt for D10 after her unsuccessful 2010 and 2012 bids because she's seen firsthand the deep need for strong advocates for teachers and students, especially amid the state's weak investment in public education. "Districts are really suffering. They know what good education looks like, but they don't always have the resources they need to make it happen," said Jennings.
D10 incumbent Maynard stands relatively moderate in comparison with the right-wing ideologues on the board and, unlike some of his GOP counterparts, has actual education experience. The Williamson County resident is executive director of the Texas Future Farmers of America and a former Florence school board member.
San Marcos-based Bell-Metereau is taking her third shot at District 5; she also previously ran in 2010 and 2012. A Texas State media studies and English professor of more than three decades, Bell-Metereau's platform includes ensuring the scales aren't tilted to favor charter or private schools (an ironic yet very real concern as some right-wing members have admonished public education), granting greater respect to teachers and scholars who come before the board, and promoting a stronger vetting process for textbooks and curriculum. "A lot of material comes through with bias and a poor understanding of the subject matter. I would like to see that process change," she said. Like Jennings, Bell-Metereau criticizes the impact of high-stakes testing and said she'd like to see the board act as a liaison between the districts and the Legislature. "Parents, teachers, and administrations keep telling me that the board is just not paying attention to what they're saying," she said.
Of the latest controversy over error-riddled and racist Mexican-American textbooks, Bell-Metereau slams the many factual errors as a "horrible" embarrassment. "Some people say those passages were taken out of context. But no matter what context you put them in, they're not appropriate." When it comes to science education, the candidate believes right-wing and creationist-supporting board members have sought to chip away at accepted scientific fact and intentionally confuse students when it comes to subjects like evolution and climate change. Just last week, conservative board members renewed their attack on evolution by criticizing a curriculum review panel of experts for removing biology items that undermine the science of evolution.
D5's longtime incumbent Mercer, while less vocal in recent years, still stands as one of the most ultra-conservative – and anti-science – sitting SBOE members. Mercer infamously argued on a radio program in 2011 that because animals aren't transitional – like a "cat-dog" or a "rat-cat" – evolution is nonexistent. ("If your theory's right, all these species would get together and form a new species, then where is the cat-dog or the rat-cat, whatever it be? They don't come together. Cats go with cats, and dogs go with dogs," he said.)
Even with their academic bona fides in the face of incumbents with markedly less expertise in education, the Democrats have an uphill battle ahead of them. The districts they're fighting to win are expansive and have trended solidly Republican over the past decade. In fact, the logistics of simply campaigning are no easy feat for any of the SBOE candidates, some of whom must cover an area equivalent in size to a small state. Jennings' district encompasses 17 counties including Williamson and part of Travis, while Bell-Metereau's stretches through 11-plus parts of Travis and Bexar and represents more than a million and a half Texans. "I haven't met them all yet," she jokes.
With two failed races behind them, the women don't seem dispirited or unnerved, only emboldened to win an under-the-radar seat they see as hugely influential. "It's a little-known office and a little-known race, but it has a huge impact on the future of our kids," said Bell-Metereau of the SBOE campaigns. "This board is doing some good yet also a lot of damage, and it doesn't have to. They could really transform Texas education in a dramatic way."