Another Big Setback for the Far Right on Texas State Board of Education

by Dan Quinn

Last night’s State Board of Education elections marked another big step toward an end to the culture wars in Texas public school classrooms. With the defeat of incumbent Charlie Garza, R-El Paso, the state board’s faction of far-right ideologues should be smaller next year than at any time since before the 2006 elections.

Zooming out a bit, here’s the big picture that emerged from this year’s elections:

  • Garza lost to challenger Martha Dominguez, D-El Paso, after just two years on the state board.
  • Educator Sue Melton of Waco defeated longtime incumbent Gail Lowe — a leading member of the board’s far-right faction and a former board chair — in the Republican primary this past spring.
  • Longtime religious-right firebrand Terri Leo chose not to seek re-election after it became clear that she would face a very tough challenge in the GOP primary.

Add that to dramatic shifts on the board after the last election cycle in 2010:

  • Thomas Ratliff of Mount Pleasant knocked off former board chairman and arch-creationist Don McLeroy in the Republican primary.
  • Cynthia Dunbar, one of the far right’s most divisive voices on the board, chose not to seek re-election that same year.

Consider that after the 2006 elections, the board’s faction of rigidly right-wing ideologues had swelled to seven. To win on any given vote, they merely needed to win over one wavering board member — and, too often, they succeeded. As readers of this blog know well, from 2008 to 2010 the state board lurched from one “culture war” battle to another. The board passed new science curriculum standards intended to undermine instruction on evolution and climate change. Board members rammed through passage of heavily politicized social studies standards that promoted right-wing heroes like Joseph McCarthy and called into question whether separation of church and state is a key constitutional principle. They made it more likely that school districts will develop slipshod, blatantly sectarian Bible classes in public schools. And they deliberately promoted divisions between Christians, Muslims and other people of faith in our diverse state.

Since then, however, we’ve seen five religious-righters go down to defeat or choose not to seek re-election. This represents important and hard-fought progress.

But make no mistake: the board’s religious-righters will still be strong enough to keep the culture wars simmering and draw embarrassing national attention to Texas. Last night’s elections added a likely member to the board’s far-right faction — Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, has made numerous public comments indicating that he stands with that faction. With his election to the board, the creationist bloc will have at least four members, including incumbents David Bradley, R-Beaumont Buna, Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio; and Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, who also serves as board chair. It’s possible that one or two other newly elected board members could also join that bloc. We’ll find out for sure next year, when the board is scheduled to adopt new science textbooks. And the debate over new social studies textbooks follows in 2014. So there are high-stakes battles on the horizon.

The Texas Freedom Network will continue to lead the charge against far-right extremism on the State Board of Education. But for now, we should all take a moment to celebrate another important step in our long march to get politics out of Texas classrooms.

TFN President Kathy Miller released this statement to the news media today:

“We can be cautiously optimistic that a board with so many new faces  will learn from the self-inflicted embarrassments of recent years and focus on giving students an education that truly prepares them to succeed in college and the workforce. An early test will be the adoption of new science textbooks next year, when the board will have to choose between listening to the recommendations of teachers and scholars or to ideologues who are more interested in fighting the culture wars.”

New board members:

District 1: Martha Dominguez, D-El Paso

District 2: Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville

District 3: Marisa Perez, D-San Antonio

District 6: Donna Bahorich, R-Houston

District 10: Tom Maynard, R-Florence

District 12: Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, R-Dallas (Returning after having lost re-election in 2010)

District 14: Sue Melton, R-Waco

District 15: Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo

Returning board members:

District 4: Lawrence Allen, D-Fresno

District 5: Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio

District 7: David Bradley, R-Beaumont

District 8: Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands

District 9: Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant

District 11: Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth

District 13: Mavis Knight, D-Dallas