Recent press attention aside, the State Board of Education usually operates without getting much scrutiny; it’s hard enough to find people who can name their state senator, let alone their SBOE member. While the board determines much of the education policy for almost 5 million children, few people have more than a passing familiarity with its activities or the election of its members. But the SBOE's recent battles over textbooks and curriculum have changed all that — and the composition of the board itself. In the March 3 Republican primary, voters unseated two incumbent members, including Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, the board's former chair and one of the most visible flag-carriers for social conservatism.
“People are paying attention. A lot more people are paying attention,” says Tim Tuggey, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 5 seat of incumbent Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio. The issues “hit them right where they live.”
Since 2006, the board has made national headlines for its conservative agenda, which has included debates over putting the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in the science curriculum and, more recently, on which historical figures to include in the state’s social studies curriculum. Big media outlets from the The Washington Monthly to the New York Times have spilled ink over the success that conservatives have enjoyed in advancing their agenda. McLeroy became the face of the movement when he oversaw the evolution debates. He, along with six other conservative Republicans, formed a reliable voting bloc, and when they got the swing vote of member Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, as they often did, they had the majority to stand against the education establishment’s recommendations.
Left-leaning groups say that shift sparked a wave of interest in the board’s elections. Throughout the SBOE primaries, most eyes stayed set on two races: McLeroy versus Thomas Ratliff and Mercer versus Tuggey. The state board has “always been this sleepy corner of state government that no one paid any attention to,” says Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network. “We have really never seen the level of interest. It used to be you’d begin to see eyes glazing over [when talking about the board], but now you see heads nodding. They get it.”
Jonathan Saenz of the right-leaning Liberty Institute agrees that more people are following the board’s primaries. “I don’t think it’s any big surprise,” he says. “They’re interested in where their tax dollars are being spent and how they’re kids are being educated.”
Former member Dan Montgomery, who lost to Mercer in 2006, isn’t so sure. “I know the media’s tried” to increase awareness, he says. “But I can almost guarantee you even my neighbors didn’t know I was on State Board of Education when I was — and they were teachers.” He thinks that isn’t likely to change.
Nonetheless, the primaries had a major impact. At the outset, the two big races appeared as mirror images, with hard-line conservatives challenged by mainstream Republican lobbyists. Ultimately, they ended quite differently. Mercer decisively beat Tuggey with almost 70 percent of the vote, while Ratliff defeated McLeroy by fewer than one thousand votes. Meanwhile, in a race almost no one was watching, challenger George Clayton came out of nowhere to beat Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, R-Dallas, a long-time incumbent who was not part of the six-member conservative bloc.
Paul Henley, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, says the upsets show that more voters were watching. Among TSTA members, “the energy level was almost magnetizing,” he says. “Two years ago, four years ago, we would endorse candidates and those candidates would be supported by TSTA, but you wouldn’t hear the same emphasis, the same tenor from our members, that you would hear this year.”
Henley, who believes TSTA members may have made the difference in the McLeroy race, thinks all the change may have an unintended consequence: If the board becomes more moderate, interest in its actions and elections will dwindle. “If things go smoothly,” he says, “there shouldn’t be furor. There shouldn’t be a renewed passion for these kinds of things.”
Saenz, on the other hand, argues that people should not equate the activists who attend the board meetings in droves to average Texans who vote in big numbers. Most people are not displeased with the job the state board has been doing, he contends. He says the arguments from the left helped ensure turnout. “The louder they get and the more they cry foul, they just help us equip,” he says.
Just because there are more voters, however, doesn’t mean they’re making good decisions. Member Terri Leo, R-Spring, says there’s always been a high level of interest in the state board and she hasn’t noticed a change. What she has noticed, though, is misinformation.
Voters “get their information from the papers, which is mostly inaccurate,” says Leo. “Most reporters are lazy, and they don’t do their homework. “
Leo says the lack of correct information can get voters riled up over the wrong things. As an example, she points to this week’s dust-up with Fox News, in which the cable channel made a half-dozen errors in its pre-meeting coverage, prompting the Texas Education Agency to put out a list of corrections. Voters could be basing their decisions on that bogus reporting, Leo says.
Montgomery says the problem is even more prosaic. “I’m convinced that State Board of Education races are nothing more … than name commonality,” he says. Montgomery believes that voters go with the most common name — not so much name recognition but rather names that many people have. He says that’s how Mercer beat Tuggey. He also says that Miller’s decision to campaign with her nickname “Tincy” cost her the election.
“It’s sick the way that works,” says Montgomery. That’s why he wants to see SBOE members appointed rather than elected. Otherwise, he believes, voters will make poor decisions on races that aren't at the top of the ticket.