Former Texas State Board of Education Challenged

Republicans Thomas Ratliff (left) and Don McLeroy prepare to square off for a State Board of Education primary.
Republicans Thomas Ratliff (left) and Don McLeroy prepare to square off for a State Board of Education primary.

While political observers seem transfixed on the coming heavyweight brawl between Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the fight for the soul of the Texas GOP may be down the ballot in a race for State Board of Education. A battle between incumbent school board member Don McLeroy, a symbol of Christian conservatism, and challenger Thomas Ratliff, the scion of a moderate Republican family may show what’s to come.

“It’s a question: What direction does the Republican Party go in Texas and nationally for the future?” said Tom Pauken, who chaired the state GOP from 1994 to 1997, as it became the majority in Texas.

“This little race is a reflection of the division within the party,” he said.

With the Republican Party reeling nationally—having lost the presidency and both houses of Congress—ideological cracks have emerged between social conservatives and moderates. In Texas, Republicans still maintain control, though their power has eroded since its height in 2003. The GOP holds a comfortable lead in the Senate, but a razor thin majority in the State House. Republicans, Pauken believes, have two opposing strategies for 2010: Some seek to expand the party to those who are fiscally conservative but socially moderate, while another camp pushes for a back-to-basics move toward stringent social conservatism. 

And the winner of the governor’s primary won’t resolve those debates, say Republican strategists Bill Noble and Kevin Shuvalov. While the men support different candidates (Perry and Hutchison respectively), both say disagreements between conservative and moderate Republicans are not indicative of a rift but rather of inherent tensions within any majority party.

Pauken agrees the Hutchison-Perry race won’t shed light on the debate. “The governor’s race is muddy” ideologically, he said. Perry and Hutchinson will likely try to out-conservative one another as they try to distinguish themselves on questions of performance, personality, record and anything else their campaigns can find. But debates on the candidates’ Republican ideology might not be clear-cut.

By contrast, in the state school board race the ideological lines and political alliances are bright red. McLeroy carries the flag for injecting moral values and reform into government affairs, while Ratliff seeks to depoliticize education and forge compromise with the generally more liberal education establishment.

“I’ve never had anybody announce in June,” McLeroy said. “There won’t ever be a campaign race like this for me.”

Fighting board factions

McLeroy and Ratliff will square off to represent SBOE District 9, which encompasses 29 counties from Bryan to Bogata on the Oklahoma border.  While most of the district is rural, the eastern end includes Plano and Dallas suburbs. It’s more Republican than the rest of Texas: Perry won 45 percent of the vote there in 2006, compared with 39 percent statewide. That same year, McLeroy won 60 percent of the vote over a Democratic opponent.

SBOE races, typically sleepy affairs, have gained prominence in the wake of the rise of hard-right members like McLeroy. His faction on the state board has unabashedly used the position to imbue the public school curriculum with traditional moral values and increased academic rigor.

While McLeroy has held his seat since 1998, it’s only been in the last three years that he has had the opportunity to push his conservative goals forward. In 2006, the board gained two new conservative members, and soon emerged as a clash site between social conservatives and moderates. Later in 2007, the governor appointed McLeroy chair.

Though the board had (and still has) ten Republican and five Democrats, seven socially conservative Republicans had formed a reliable voting bloc that, with the swing vote of Democratic member Rick Agosto, gave them the power to push forward a socially conservative agenda.

As McLeroy led the board in rewriting English and Science state standards, injecting moral teachings into each, he and his allies clashed with teacher’s groups and mainstream education experts.

When the board prepared to review the science curriculum, a bitter public battle began regarding how to teach evolution. McLeroy made headlines when he fought for the state science curriculum to describe the weaknesses of evolution. He succeeded in generating a curriculum that questions the fossil record on evolution and in the process became a symbolic leader for Christian conservatism.

The ensuing political row over science standards cost him the board chairmanship.  As the debate reached a fever pitch, the Senate deemed McLeroy too controversial and declined to confirm his reappointment as chair. Governor Perry then chose Gail Lowe, an equally conservative if quieter member, for the chairmanship.

Geraldine Miller, a Republican outside the ultra-conservative bloc, has been on the board since 1984. She said the 2006 shift led to a board less focused on bipartisan efforts.

“This is the first time that’s ever happened,” she said, “and it does cause concern, in many people’s view, of what is happening on our board.”

The Challenge

McLeroy’s opponent, Thomas Ratliff, casts himself as a champion of professional educators and a guardian against politicians who seek to meddle in their classrooms.

“I truly believe he (McLeroy) thinks he knows better” than educators what should be taught and how, Ratliff said. “I am one hundred and eighty degrees from that mentality.”

Ratliff is a moderate Republican lobbyist who comes from a tradition of pragmatic politics. His father, Bill Ratliff, served as a state senator from 1988 to 2000 and lieutenant governor from 2000 until 2003, where he made his reputation on forging compromise with unlikely allies. While he considers himself fiscally and socially conservative, the younger Ratliff says he’s eager to move away from the politics that have dominated the state board over the last three years.

He began his campaign by meeting with PTAs and individual school board members and superintendents around the district, asking what they needed. While focusing on local school communities, he says he also trusts such education establishment groups as the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) for guidance on statewide issues.

Ideological fights over evolution and the like, he said, are exactly what educators don’t need. He believes conservative board members pursue such debates for their own ideological satisfaction over the core task of educating children to think for themselves.

“They are trying to push what appears to be more of a political agenda than public education agenda,” he said.

 No apologies

McLeroy casts the dustup over science education, and the loss of his chairmanship, as evidence of his success in bringing change to a board that had typically rubberstamped recommendations from TEA bureaucrats. He describes himself as a “knowledge warrior,” fighting against what he calls the “education adults”—those more worried about their own jobs and status than students’ well-being.

 He distrusts the educational establishment – particularly groups like TASA and TASB. While these groups want to implement a “student-centered” approach focused on critical thinking and problem-solving skills tailored to children as individuals, McLeroy and his allies favor what he calls a “teacher-centered” approach that emphasizes traditional facts and knowledge. A student-centered lesson might, for instance, instruct students to write their own survival plan for a colony just landing in America. A teacher-centered approach would focus on the actual actions dates for Christopher Newport and John Smith.

McLeroy said he spends copious amounts of time researching educational student achievement rather than relying on research from the education establishment. If it weren’t for the social conservatives on the board, McLeroy says, teachers unions, TASA and TASB would maintain an unacceptable status quo.

McLeroy makes no apologies for grafting a political agenda onto education.  “The culture war over science education, the teaching of evolution, is going to be there, no matter what,” he said. “Education is too important not to politicize.”

Battles bleed into other races

Miller, the board’s longest serving member, casts the recent squabbles as a new and disturbing state of affairs on a board charged with education, not political indoctrination.

“Education really is a bipartisan issue,” she said. “It should not be partisan, you should focus on what’s right for children.”

The debate among Republicans — establishment and anti-establishment, social conservatives and social moderates — is playing out across the state board of education. Other members of McLeroy’s faction, Ken Mercer and Cynthia Dunbar, also face moderate primary challengers. According to Ratliff, the Republican challengers, while not formally coordinated, have all called him to discuss their races.

Tim Tuggey, who is running against Mercer, says he wants to make the SBOE less ideological and more focused on teacher’s needs, much like Ratliff. “I don’t understand how you make policy decisions without talking to educators — even if you disagree with them,” he said. 

Mercer was quick to question Tuggey’s Republican credentials, citing recent donations to Democratic causes amid earlier GOP gifts: $2400 to Waco’s Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards and $1500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Mercer also objects to the fact that his opponent – like Ratliff – works as a lobbyist.

“In Republican primaries, it’s just been widely known that a lobbyist does not run for office,” he said.

Both Ratliff and Tuggey seem to break such rules — running in Republican primaries on a platform of tamping down social conservatism in favor of political pragmatism.

 The $64,000 question

McLeroy brushes off the controversy over science curriculum. The media, he said, seeks to pigeonhole him and his allies on the board as “religious fanatics.”

“I’m here on a social equity issue,” he said. “As a Christian with strong Christian beliefs … I know all these children are created in God’s image, and we need to help these kids. It’s a moral responsibility.”

Ratliff wants to take the board back to its days as a consensus body prior to 2006. Cooler, more tolerant heads should prevail, he said. “The term ‘moderate’ has almost become a slur in certain circles of the Republican Party,”

But Ratliff and McLeroy both know the stakes are high in their primary race.  Should McLeroy lose, the conservative bloc would have a difficult time getting the votes to push their agenda.  And more broadly, the loss will indicate what type of Republican the conservative district favors.

Ratliff puts it plainly: “The $64,000 is: Who controls the party? Is it the folks who are ideologically aligned with him or those who are ideologically aligned with me?”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.