Texas State Board of Education Keeps Drama Low

The State Board of Education — which occupies a uniquely political corner of state government — is starting to feel the heat.

Just this week, state Rep. Norma Chavez came in to lobby for more Latino historical figures to be in the social studies curriculum. By the time she was done, she was issuing barely veiled threats to the SBOE. Chavez, D-El Paso, noted her position on the Appropriations Committee and told the committee, “You want us to take [the issue] out to the public, the members of the Legislature will be happy to do that.”

While moderate Republican Pat Hardy pushed back by defending the curriculum, the outspoken, hard-right members who have made the board famous remained quiet. Two days into their quarterly meeting, and there’s been little spectacle. No fodder for Keith Olberman here, their actions seemed to say.

It’s a smart move.  The board, which has showcased some intense philosophical fights, has drawn scrutiny from the Legislature and the public for becoming a partisan battleground. Legislative frustration and national efforts to standardize state curricula threaten to diminish the board’s authority, and for now, members are just trying to get along. But underneath the goodwill, rifts are still as big as ever.

“The legislators have made it very clear from both sides of the aisles that they are watching what we do and how we behave,” said Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, a Republican who’s not part of the far-right contingent.

Democrat Lawrence Allen concurred: “We have to be very careful not to look like we are partisan.”

Endangered authority?

The state board has traditionally had three primary roles: approving textbooks, defining curriculum guidelines and watching over the Permanent School Fund. Earlier this year, the Legislature moved much of the power over textbooks to the commissioner and away from the SBOE, and defined the recommended high school graduation plan (which a vast majority of students follow). Much of this week has been an effort to bring the other two high school plans — the (more rigorous) advanced plan and the easier minimum plan — in line with what the Legislature already did.

The school accountability bill, HB 3, took almost all elective requirements out of the graduation plan, including P.E. The SBOE must change the other two plans to be in sync, so that students who want to switch from the recommended plan to the minimum plan aren't faced with extra requirements. Many testified against the revisions, and while the board must make the changes for consistency's sake, members aren't pleased about it.

The Legislature made the decision,” board member Bob Craig tried to explain at one witness. “You understand our situation?”

That situation may get worse. The board is still in charge of setting the Essential Knowledge and Skills standard for students, but a federal push to standardize states’ curricula may jeopardize that authority. Texas is one of only two states that did not sign onto the national effort for uniform core curriculum and because of that decision, is unlikely to get any of $4.35 billion in grant money that the federal government is offering states. Texas has already invested significant funds into revamping its own standards and has benchmarked them to national standards. But the pressure to take on the same ones as the other states may grow.

If Texas bows to such pressure, “this could be the last time you act on English Language Arts,” Education Commissioner Robert Scott told the board. 

Hardy responded to Scott, saying, “This is all from the top coming down and we don’t need that.”

Without much control over curriculum and textbooks, the state board would be reduced to nothing more than oversight of the Permanent School Fund.

As a board member, “you would have to be aware of the possibility of your influence being marginalized because of that,” said David Anderson, a Hillco lobbyist who’s been a fixture at these meeting for years.

According to Education Commissioner Robert Scott, the board’s future will depend on “what the legislative mood is when they convene” next January.  In addition to letting some types of textbooks bypass the board, the members are also under surveillance literally, with cameras in the meeting room to allow anyone to tune in to the meetings online.

Getting along

“They’re all behaving themselves very well,” Scott noted of Wednesday’s meeting.

Anderson agreed: “All the bills [during session] might have had an impact on some of them.”

Despite a few flashpoints — reminders of a walkout in July and debates over exactly what revisionist history is — members kept their cool on the whole. As the meeting dragged on almost 14 hours, emotions rose, particularly when discussing tactics from previous meetings and inclusion issues around social studies, but nothing got out of hand.

 “There are a lot more eyes involved,” said Allen, referring to the online broadcast of the hearing. “It curtails some of the behaviors.”

Anderson also attributed the recent calm to Gail Lowe, the board’s new chair. While Lowe is part of the ultra-conservative bloc, she’s emphasized her commitment to focusing on the administrative side of her role and enforcing rules fairly.

Anderson says Democrats and moderates are happy they’re getting a voice and the right wants to see one of its own succeed.

“She’s really trying to give a fair deal to everybody,” he said.

Trouble under the surface

But getting along may not be enough.  While members maintained civility, Texas State Teachers Association member Paul Henley pointed to “an undercurrent.” Moderate members had left early for the night, before the discussion on social studies curriculum could bring out ideologues across the spectrum

Many of the ultra-conservatives are facing challengers, in both primaries and general elections. Since some members are helping — or are accused of helping — the challengers to beat their colleagues, Scott says there are limits to camaraderie.

“They know that,” he said. “It’s what’s happening.”

Rick Agosto, a Democrat who’s been the swing vote between the conservative bloc and the rest of board, was open about his feelings of alienation. He has spent the last few weeks dealing with allegations of ethics violations. He says not only are the claims completely false, but that documents were “criminally leaked by a fellow board member.”

The allegations are “coming from the moderate Republicans in my opinion,” said Agosto, who is not seeking reelection.

The board still has two more days of meetings, to establish the tone. “They’ve been better behaved” until this point, said Anderson. “But I’d wait till Friday.”

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