The mustached dentist from Bryan captured worldwide attention as an unapologetic creationist and skeptic of the church-state wall during his tenure on the State Board of Education. And though today marks the beginning of Don McLeroy’s final board meeting before his GOP primary opponent, Thomas Ratliff, replaces him, the 12-year board veteran says this is anything but the end of his involvement.
"I mean, golly, I love this stuff. You haven't seen the last of Don McLeroy,” he says, noting that while he’ll watch to see what happens during this legislative session’s redistricting process, he’ll likely run for his old spot on the board in two years.
At its height, media coverage of McLeroy — a self-proclaimed "religious fanatic" — included an appearance on Arab TV news network Al Jazeera, a Washington Monthly profile and a New York Times Magazine story. He lost his long-held seat by a thin margin to the more moderate Ratliff, who campaigned on taking politics out of education.
Does he have any regrets? “Oh, gosh, no,” he says. “To put it in phenomenal God language, I’m thinking that maybe God’s got something else for me to do.”
McLeroy isn’t the only board member on his way out in 2011. When the 15-person SBOE meets this week, a third of its members will be lame ducks. Democrat Rene Nuñez lost his seat to Republican Carlos Garza in the general election. Along with McLeroy, Republican Geraldine “Tincy” Miller lost her seat in the primary. Rick Agosto, a Democrat, and Cynthia Dunbar, a Republican, both decided to step down this year.
But this week’s gathering offers little room for outgoing members to leave their mark. On the agenda? Developing recommendations for the 82nd legislative session; adopting textbooks for English, language arts, spelling, fine arts and speech; and reviewing bids for supplementary science textbook material.
While the upcoming meeting will be tame compared to last spring’s media circus over social studies curriculum, the science textbooks could potentially produce some fireworks. The SBOE revised Texas’ science standards in 2009 to include the teaching of "all sides" of evolution. But because of the state’s budget shortfall, the board opted for schools to keep existing texts and use supplemental online materials with updated curriculum instead of calling for new science books. Publishers had until the end of October to submit their bids for the online materials. At this meeting, the SBOE could make a selection.
Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, says the liberal watchdog group is eager to see which vendor the board selects. He argues the process was “almost ready-made” to allow “a fringe group to sneak in materials that they otherwise wouldn't be able to get into the classroom.” Quinn says it’s possible that not many publishers have submitted bids — which are sealed — because of the risk that the state may not even have the money to buy the supplemental materials.
"Vendors have to decide to create materials that the state may not have the money to buy,” Quinn says.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, McLeroy said that, for him, the meeting will lack the excitement of past sessions. Of the board’s future work developing math standards, he said, “It's pretty blah compared to evolution. It's pretty blah compared to American exceptionalism and things like that."
After hanging up, McLeroy sent an e-mail saying he had thought more about what he wanted to say about his time in the limelight. He wrote that to understand the events of the past two years, "you need to know that for our opponents, nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution."
“The great story coming out of Texas is that their spell has been broken,” he added. “We have ended the dogmatic teaching of evolution, and we have restored the founders’ idea of a Creator."