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Published in Print: March 10, 2010, as Election Loosens Conservatives' Hold on Texas Board

Election Loosens Conservatives' Hold on Texas Board

Bloc Had Votes to Swing Important Decisions About Standards

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The Texas state school board’s influential Christian conservative bloc was weakened last week after one of its most prominent members lost a primary election to a moderate Republican. Another reliably conservative seat was headed to a runoff.

Don McLeroy, the former chairman, was handed a GOP primary defeat by lobbyist Thomas Ratliff.

Since the group of conservatives has been in the majority on the board, the national spotlight has shined on Texas’ controversies over evolution and social studies standards. ("Vote Draws Near on Texas Curriculum," May 21, 2008, and "Texas School Board Backs More Inclusion in Social Studies Draft," Sept. 30, 2009.)

The winner of the primary contest conceded that Mr. McLeroy had never injected his religious beliefs into textbooks. Still, Mr. Ratliff had criticized the 10-year board veteran for what critics see as Mr. McLeroy’s far-right views.

In deciding what goes into textbooks, the 15-member state board wields considerable influence nationally because Texas is one of the biggest clients for publishers.

“Voters sent a clear message by rejecting the ringleader of the faction that has repeatedly dragged our public schools into the nation’s divisive culture wars over the past four years,” Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes the Christian conservatives’ initiatives, said. “Parents want a state board that focuses on educating their kids, not promoting divisive political and personal agendas,” she said.

Nevertheless, social conservatives claimed at least one victory as incumbent Ken Mercer of San Antonio successfully fended off a Republican challenge from Tim Tuggey, a lawyer from Austin. And conservative Brian Russell forced an April runoff with educator Marsha Farney for the seat held by an outgoing member of the Christian conservative bloc, Cynthia Dunbar.

“I hope we can keep our conservative posture,” Mr. Mercer said of the board. He’ll face Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau in November.

“It’s not anybody’s ideology,” he said. “It’s just keeping the promises we made.”

Primary results aside, the seven conservative Christians on the current board will have votes this spring on the adoption of a new social studies curriculum, a task that has been chock full of ideological flashpoints.

Curriculum Choices Ahead

While early quibbles over how much prominence to give civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and the inclusion of Christmas seem to have been smoothed over—neither will be removed from the standards—board members are crafting dozens of amendments to be raised for consideration before the first vote this month.

Mr. McLeroy, who believes that Earth is only 6,000 years old and that the Christian influences of the Founding Fathers are important to the study of American history, saw the state legislature strip him of the chairmanship last year following criticism of his outspoken views on creationism and support for teaching what he asserts are the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

Ms. Dunbar has drawn the most attention in her single four-year term by writing that public schools were a “subtly deceptive tool of peversion.”

Mr. McLeroy, Ms. Dunbar, and five other conservative Christians on the current board have secured majorities when picking up votes from one of three other Republicans or five Democrats.

One of the board’s more moderate Republicans, Geraldine Miller, also lost her primary bid to keep the seat she has held since 1994. But little is known about her successful challenger, George Clayton, an English teacher from Dallas, and it wasn’t clear last week where his votes might align. Mr. Clayton did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Democrats Rene Nunez and Lawrence Allen Jr. are both running for re-election; Mr. Allen is unopposed. No Democrats filed to run for Mr. McLeroy’s seat in November.

Last week’s elections were the first since the board tackled the evolution curriculum in 2008. During the heated debate that ultimately cost Mr. McLeroy his chairmanship, the board decided Texas schools would no longer have to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Teachers still would be encouraged to consider “all sides” of scientific theories.

Vol. 29, Issue 24, Page 23

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