Pace Is Relentless for Texas School Board Chairman
A veteran of five marathons, Jack Christie doesn't tire easily. That's why the weariness in his voice says a lot about his three years as the chairman of the Texas state school board.
Almost since the day he was sworn in, he has been in the middle of a divisive rewrite of state learning standards and, in recent months, he has faced a controversy over school investment funds. In addition, since last fall, Mr. Christie has waged an almost one-man campaign to get laptop computers to the state's 4 million K-12 students.
Most taxing, however, may be the internecine warfare between Mr. Christie and fellow Republicans, several of whom blame the Houston chiropractor for blocking their conservative agenda. One Republican colleague has even called for his resignation. In sum, it's been a withering pace, but he thinks he can go "full-tilt" for another year.
"To say that it bothers me zero would be a falsehood," Mr. Christie said of his critics in a recent interview. "Does it detract me from moving ahead to improve the schools? No. Every place I go, people will make the statement, 'You hang in there, Jack. We need you.' That's all I need."
Mr. Christie spent four years in the board's minority before 1994, when the GOP gained a 9-to-6 majority on the elected panel. It was the first GOP majority in the 49-year history of the board.
"We weren't sure what it meant," John O'Sullivan, the secretary-treasurer of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said of the power shift. "The question became where the political center would be."
Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, set a moderate course when he bypassed a more conservative candidate, state board member Robert H. Offutt, and picked Mr. Christie as the panel's chairman.
But the appointment also put Mr. Christie on a collision course with a six-member bloc of Republicans backed by conservative religious groups. The gap was especially pronounced during the nearly three-year effort, beginning in 1995, to rewrite the state's curriculum standards.
Mr. Christie and his colleagues split over a Washington-based consulting firm hired to help draft the standards. Critics said that the National Center on Education and the Economy was part of a liberal, federal education agenda. Mr. Christie countered that the center brought expertise to the process, and he rejected the charges as a "conspiracy theory."
The divisions continued through the final days of the process last July. Facing a legislative deadline, Mr. Christie cut off debate amid claims that the proposed standards lacked rigor and should be revised. The standards were passed and are now in place.
"There was no effort to debate the amendments," Mr. Offutt said in a recent interview. "To not have been given the opportunity to debate the final decision leads one to seriously doubt the leadership of the board."
Mr. Christie says he was more than patient with the critics. "They offered 17 amendments. At some point, it becomes a delay tactic, and you have to say that three years is long enough. They didn't like that."
Mr. Christie insists that he is a conservative Republican: "When I was elected, people were concerned that I was too conservative."
Who's a Conservative?
He opposes collective bargaining for teachers, endorses expeditious firing policies for teachers, and has been praised for trimming state regulations. He also joins Gov. Bush in backing a pilot voucher program.
"There's no doubt that he's a Republican and a conservative," Mr. O'Sullivan of the tft, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said. "Thank God he's also a gentleman and a person of honor."
Added Mr. Christie: "As soon as you're elected, children are not political. I think politics are too much an issue on this board."
But some conservatives feel let down by the 49-year-old father of three youngsters, two of whom are school-age and attend public schools in Houston.
Cathie Adams, the president of the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative activist group, said that Mr. Christie is more like a Democrat than a Republican. She cites his support of the federal Goals 2000 school reform program and a workforce-development curriculum.
"We were hoping that a Republican majority would mean that the federal government would have less say in local schools," Ms. Adams said."That's not what we got."
Then there was the Hindu invocation that Mr. Christie allowed last fall at a board meeting. "The [Christian] church still has a huge influence in the state, and Jack Christie had a Hindu prayer," Ms. Adams said. "He is absolutely not a conservative Republican."
During his 1996 re-election bid, however, voters in his Houston district backed Mr. Christie with 54 percent of the GOP primary votes and 87 percent in the final ballot.
Seeking a Legacy
Mr. Christie's term on the board ends in 2001, but his chairmanship ends this year and cannot be extended under state law. Meanwhile, some in the state say that he is creating a legacy as a patient voice of moderation.
"If it weren't for Jack Christie, this would be a totally dysfunctional board," said Sen. Bill Ratliff, a Republican member of the Senate education committee. "He has done an exceptional job."
But Mr. Christie also hopes that his legacy will include laptop computers for the state's K-12 students. Last fall, he proposed replacing textbooks with the portable computers by tapping into the $1.8 billion that the state expects to spend on textbooks over the next six years. ("Texas Chairman Touts Laptops in Lieu of Textbooks," Sept. 24, 1997.)
The idea gets mixed reviews from board members, some of whom say he is grandstanding. Gov. Bush would opt for a pilot program.
Mr. Christie is pressing ahead, getting proposals from technology companies. With some laptops priced at about $500, the idea is an affordable one, he said.
"You can't deny that this is a better tool for learning," he added. "When you can move an isosceles triangle, that's more exciting than a textbook."
But there is another issue vying for his attention.
Some board members want to revisit the board's decision last fall to hire nine private money managers to invest $2.5 billion in school trust funds. New information has surfaced about the firms' qualifications, as well as preferences some firms may have received in return for making contributions to board members' campaigns, they add.
Mr. Christie is not one of those who may have received the campaign funds, said Republican board member David Bradley, a critic of the contributions and part of the conservative bloc.
But after Mr. Christie canceled a special meeting in November to discuss the issue, Mr. Offutt asked Gov. Bush to seek Mr. Christie's resignation. Mr. Bush rejected the request and voiced support for his chairman.
Explaining why he canceled the meeting, Mr. Christie said: "They didn't produce any evidence of impropriety. It was an obvious attempt to blindside the rest of the board ... and I'm not going to allow it."
Last month, the state education department's legal counsel found no wrongdoing with the selection process.
But storm clouds still hover. "I think this is going to stay on the front burner," Mr. Bradley said. "We'll be watching this very, very closely."