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TribBlog: Washington Monthly vs. Don McLeroy

The venerable D.C. magazine takes on the State Board of Education — and its former chair.

Don McLeroy, a member of the Texas State Board of Education, at the Texas Tribune offices in October.

State School Board member Don McLeroy appears to have eagerly invited attention from a Washington Monthly reporter, only to take a bit of a beating in the resulting article. The magazine's latest issue devotes more than 3,700 words of at-times pointed ridicule over the way he and (perhaps to a lesser extent) other social conservatives on the board have sought to inject conservative dogma into Texas textbooks and tests. 

In a familiar magazine style, writer Mariah Blake opens with a scene of herself sitting down with the animated McLeroy, who blasts her with proclamations from the rightmost flank of the Texas culture war: Basically a mini-narrative of how God, Ronald Reagan and Don McLeroy have collaborated to save the world from the communists, the secular humanists and, of course, Charles Darwin. 

To wit:

Don McLeroy is a balding, paunchy man with a thick broom-handle mustache who lives in a rambling two-story brick home in a suburb near Bryan, Texas. When he greeted me at the door one evening last October, he was clutching a thin paperback with the skeleton of a seahorse on its cover, a primer on natural selection penned by famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. We sat down at his dining table, which was piled high with three-ring binders, and his wife, Nancy, brought us ice water in cut-crystal glasses with matching coasters. Then McLeroy cracked the book open. The margins were littered with stars, exclamation points, and hundreds of yellow Post-its that were brimming with notes scrawled in a microscopic hand. With childlike glee, McLeroy flipped through the pages and explained what he saw as the gaping holes in Darwin’s theory. “I don’t care what the educational political lobby and their allies on the left say,” he declared at one point. “Evolution is hooey.” This bled into a rant about American history. “The secular humanists may argue that we are a secular nation,” McLeroy said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. “But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principals. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

The article, apparently in the works for months, is timely. Indeed, I'm working on a piece examining similar issues myself, in advance of next week's SBOE meeting, where it will take up social studies standards, likely to familiar partisan rancor. The board has the option of tossing out major portions of the months' worth of work put in by dozens of educators on the standards writing teams -- as it did in the previous two standards adoptions, in science and English. Also predictably on order: Fights over the inclusion or exclusion of historical figures, particularly women and minorities. Board member Mary Helen Berlanga, of Corpus Christi, is particularly irked at the lack of Hispanic and female figures in the current version of the standards, and told me this morning she would "fight until the end" for their inclusion. 

If history is any guide, McLeroy will come out swinging on a few issues of his own, likely involving God and patriotism. But he seemed somewhat sheepish this afternoon when I asked him about the pointed Washington Monthly article and the possibility of controversial revisions to the current standards. McLeroy said the board would definitely have amendments to the work of curriculum teams. In the past, "amendments" have brought major rewrites, but McLeroy seemed to downplay the possibility of controversial overhauls this time (without ruling it out.)

Of the Washington Monthly piece: 

"I don't think she misquoted me on anything," he said, though he believes the reporter mischaracterized his faction's handling of state English standards as sneaky. "I'm still not sure I said, 'Evolution is hooey,' but I'm definitely a skeptic." 

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