Former SBOE Chair McLeroy Still Fights Culture War

Don McLeroy recounts the saga of rejecting a math textbook like an old war story.

“The room was abuzz — I’ve never seen the room quite like that,” he says. He tells the story in an excited whisper, eyes wide and with a smile. It was 2007, and McLeroy, the chair of the State Board of Education, led a group of six other socially conservative Republicans and one conservative Democrat in rejecting a third-grade math book because, among other things, it did not teach all the multiplication tables to rote.

His telling injects a David and Goliath tone to what might be a dry story of textbooks and standards. For McLeroy, the tale is one of courageous reformers like himself challenging the educational behemoth — the unions, the lobbyists, the publishers — and doing what was right for children.

 “I stood up to the experts,” he explains.  

Some disagree with McLeroy’s version. Many argued with the decision at the time and some called it illegal—the board is authorized to reject textbooks for not meeting the Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements, for lacking physical requirements like a strong binding or if it has factual errors. McLeroy is adamant that they acted within their rights, and he dismisses many of these criticisms as being from sore losers.

 

“The thing is, we have won,” he says. “We stood up to the far left.”

For McLeroy, the “we” refers to socially conservative Republicans, like himself, who, in 2006, gained a critical mass on the board. “There’s a battle in education,” he says, “and there are people lined up against us."

The Bryan dentist became a minor celebrity in education when, as chairman of the State Board of Education, he fought to ensure that students would learn “the strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Despite losing his chairmanship in the ensuing battle, the conservatives emerged victorious with science teachers required to show faults in the fossil record.  Even the chairmanship wasn’t as great a loss — Gail Lowe, the new chair, is one of McLeroy’s best friends and an equally staunch conservative.

Not all escaped unscathed though. McLeroy must fight for his seat — after offending much of the science and teaching community, he's now got a primary challenger in lobbyist Thomas Ratliff. McLeroy's hard-right stands have earned him enemies across the state, and many of them will flock to Ratliff. Evolution will likely be a major topic of debate in the race, as will McLeroy's record. 

But his opponents should beware of simply writing him off as simply a fanatic. McLeroy’s dreams for education in Texas reach far beyond science to a full paradigm shift in how students learn in classrooms. And he’s prepared to fight.

In addition to killing the math textbook, McLeroy has thrown himself into thoroughly changing the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). In the past, the board has often taken the Texas Education Agency’s advice, but McLeroy has inserted a variety of more traditional lessons into the curriculum. Among them: high school students can’t be tested on narrative essays, and elementary school children must identify moral themes within traditional stories.  The SBOE is now reviewing the social studies curriculum and McLeroy hopes that it will focus on traditional understandings of history, rather than incorporating more contemporary figures and lesser known minority historical figures. Translation: More Revolutionary War and less 1960s civil rights movement.

He’s particularly vocal when it comes to the nation's founding. “I will always come out the same because it’s true. It’s founded on biblical principles,” he says. He points to the preamble of Declaration of Independence — the “We hold these truths” part. 

“The secularist who wants to say we’re founded on secular principles — they’re wrong,” he says. “The secularist says there is no truth, there is no God, and that we evolved. I mean those are the principles of secularism.”

 

McLeroy’s overarching goal is to reduce the amount of “student-centered” teaching. While many in the education world describe the approach as as one that focuses on children driving their education with the teacher as facilitator, McLeroy says it amounts to an emphasis on creative and critical thinking. He hopes to return classrooms to a more traditional focus on facts and knowledge and without what he calls "the politically correct" emphasis which he believes is hurting students.  Among his biggest opponents are groups like the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards — the Goliath to his David.

“The people that are influential in education in the state of Texas with that state legislature are the superintendents and the school boards called TASA and TASB,” he says with some frustration.

But McLeroy has a plan of attack. He opens a binder he’s carrying and turns to a page of four lists, including “If I were a principal” and “If I were a university president.” Under the principal heading, he’s listed priorities like “teachers must be cream of the crop” and “political correctness needs to be weeded out.”

He’s focused in part on the problems of teacher training, which he feels is much too easy. For a time, McLeroy trained to be a teacher at the University of Texas in Austin, but he says it was much too easy.  The key to better schools, he says, is attracting better teachers through more rigorous training. In a Texas Monthly article, he proposed abolishing the current Educator Preparation Programs and replacing them with ten programs with very high standards. He says few smart students go into teaching because the current system isn’t challenging. “Would they go to a class with some stupid politically correct person up there wasting their time with a bunch of drivel?” he asks.

McLeroy’s views are based largely on his own research.  Because he doesn’t trust those normally considered experts on education, he reads a great deal and recommends reading Jeanne Chall and E.D. Hirsch to those interested in education. And while he says he seeks teacher feedback, his plan for getting their counsel isn’t exactly intensive: “I got a phone and they can call me,” he says, acknowledging “most don’t call.”

But he remains fervent in his beliefs. His self-certainty may stem from his intense brand of Christianity; McLeroy is a self-proclaimed creationist who takes a literal approach to the bible.  He writes and talks frequently about his shift to Christianity and the need for abstinence on sex-education. He says it’s his belief that all children are created in the image of God that pushes him to pursue educational equity. In discussing his work teaching fourth grade Sunday school, he breaks off.

“Am I a religious fanatic? Absolutely,” he says laughing. “You’d have to be to do what I do.”

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