George Clayton woke up on March 3 to 153 emails — quite a lot for the North Dallas High School teacher. The night before, he had pulled off a stunning upset of 26-year incumbent Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, R-Dallas, in the GOP primary for the State Board of Education's District 12 seat. Now everyone wanted a piece of him — the press, other board members, educators, constituents — and they wanted to know how he will vote on the deeply divided board.
When he joins the board in January (he has no Democrat opponent in the general election), Clayton’s vote could prove crucial in whether social conservatives continue to dominate a board notorious for ideological bickering.
A bloc of seven social conservatives on the 15-member panel has garnered national attention — or disgrace, some would say — with its messy public challenges to evolution in the science curriculum and, more recently, with its right-wing rewriting of history standards.
In the past, the bloc has succeeded by pulling its requisite eighth vote from either Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, or from a revolving cast of moderate Republicans. But the outcome of this year’s elections threatens that alliance. The most outspoken member of the social conservative bloc, Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, narrowly lost to a moderate Republican in the primary. Another of the social conservatives, Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, did not run. Further, the Democratic swing voter on whom the bloc often relied — Agosto — also stepped aside. Two other incumbents — Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio and Rene Nunez, D-El Paso — face general election challenges, which they are expected to win. (Then again, everyone expected Miller to beat Clayton.)
For now, Clayton proclaims his independence — though he gives a pretty clear indication that social conservatives shouldn’t count on him. "I am not going to side with either of those two factions," he says. Much like Thomas Ratliff — the Republican who beat social conservative icon and former SBOE chair McLeroy — Clayton talks a lot about de-politicizing the board. "The debates over social studies, the debates over evolution ... all of that needs to come to a quick end," he says. "That is not the duty of the board. I think it overstepped itself bringing those political issues onto the stage."
The SBOE's recent fights over which figures to include in the state's social studies curriculum echo similar battles over science, in which the board demanded teaching the weaknesses in the fossil record — which many creationists see as the prime argument against evolution. In social studies, the board has pushed an aggressively conservative and patriotic agenda, while limiting mention of minority historical figures and any event casting American policy negatively.
Clayton has no patience for what he calls "all of the nonsense." He says he has no problem with the teaching of evolution in school, and that he would have pushed for the inclusion of Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall in the history curriculum. (Two board-appointed curriculum “expert reviewers,” both Christian conservative evangelists, recommend cutting Chavez and Marshall; social conservatives have since assured they will include them.)
“I was taught evolution, and it didn’t shake my faith in the Almighty whatsoever,” he says. “Should creationism be taught as a counter to evolution? … No, I don’t think so. I think evolution is in the science book — it should be taught as a science.”
"If the members of the board are that politically inclined," Clayton says, "then they need to be in the Legislature, which is the proper forum for that."
Such proclamations may be bad news for Jonathan Saenz, spokesman for the right-leaning Liberty Institute. Saenz is adamant that efforts to de-politicize the board will fail because of left-leaning activists that lobby the board.
“The first time Thomas Ratliff or George Clayton doesn’t vote the way the Austin liberals want, they’ll be all over them just like they were Don McLeroy,” he says. “It will be business as usual.”
Clayton, for his part, vows to bring the voice of teachers into the board’s debates. He has proposed quarterly town hall meetings, where teachers could share their own struggles. His website, however, proposes a variety of policies that the state board doesn't control — everything from minimizing the impacts of standardized testing to increasing teachers' salaries. Clayton says he understands the board’s limited power, but that he would use his influence as to lobby the Legislature.
“Since we’re representing these districts, [we could] say, ‘Boy, these teachers need some money — what can we do it about?’” he says.
Clayton seems to view teachers as his primary constituency — in stark contrast to some socially conservative members, who have openly dismissed what they call “the education establishment” as a bastion of liberalism. North Dallas High School, where Clayton teaches, has struggled with low teacher retention, and only 56 percent of students graduate in four years. Clayton says watching such problems as a teacher inspired his interest in running. “The teacher is the face of education,” he says.
Clayton’s emphasis on a nonpartisan, teacher-based approach echoes the ideology of the woman he just defeated. Miller, a former reading specialist in the public schools, was fond of saying, “There’s no Republican or Democratic way to educate a child.” Though she decried partisanship, she was still a traditional Republican who sometimes sided with social conservatives. “Her conservatism was eclipsed by the [social conservative] radicalism,” says Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, one of the SBOE’s biggest critics.
Miller attributes the defeat to the negative press around the state board generally. She acknowledges that she’s still having trouble coping with the loss, but Miller applauds what she hopes will be a new direction for the board. “We’re seeing a move, a slow move but a gradual move, back to the middle — more moderation if you will — and that’s good,” she says. “That’s always a positive.”
She still doesn’t quite understand how she lost. She outspent Clayton by an enormous margin and spent all her time knocking on doors and attending forums, she says. “I was trying to do it right,” she says. “It wasn’t enough.”
Clayton, on the other hand, believes he understands how he won: “I think she felt, well, this guy’s nobody. He’s just a teacher. Well, I think ‘just us teachers’ went out and beat her.”
No one knows how Clayton will fit into the mix. Miller, despite running against him, says she has little sense of his ideology. “He’s not really a quote-unquote Republican,” she says. “All I know is that George Clayton is a very angry man and a very angry teacher.”
Education lobbyist Davis Anderson, of Austin-based Hillco Partners, believes Clayton will remain a political enigma even after he starts voting. “I think he is a true independent,” Anderson says. “There will be some things that he will vote with conservative Republicans, I think; there are other things [where] he’ll vote with moderate Republicans.
“What would be great to see is more of a nonpartisan approach to some of the issues,” Anderson says. “But I’m not sure, immediately coming off an election, you’ll see that.”