As Barbara Cargill details the menagerie she keeps to teach schoolchildren about science, the new chairwoman of the State Board of Education wants to make something clear: There’s only one snake in her house.
“There are a couple of lizards, I have turtles, I have salamanders, tree frogs, I have a toad, only one snake — I don’t want to freak people out — it’s a corn snake, and bunny rabbits,” she says.
Cargill’s skills as an animal wrangler may serve her well in managing the fractious group whose ideological debates over the state’s education curricula in recent years have sometimes lent its gatherings a circus-like atmosphere. On Thursday, the Republican from The Woodlands will preside over her first full meeting of the state board that oversees Texas public education.
During this week’s three-day meeting, which begins today, members are set to take up a topic that promises contention: which publishers will provide the supplemental materials that will update textbooks to the science standards the board adopted in 2009, which include the requirement that students learn “all sides” of scientific theories like evolution and natural selection.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Cargill, a former high school biology teacher who directs a science camp through her local Methodist church, on July 1 after the Legislature left town without confirming her predecessor, Lampasas Republican Gail Lowe.
Her supporters say the Baylor University graduate is a mild-tempered, fair leader who is well suited to lead the 15-member board. Her critics say she is a dangerous culture warrior who injects her religious and political agenda into the classrooms of the country’s second largest public school system. But for those who follow the board’s every movement, there’s agreement on one point: For better or worse, Cargill’s tenure will likely bring more of the same.
Cargill’s immediate predecessors in the chair were, like her, a part of the majority-Republican board’s tightly knit gang of six social conservatives.
Because of that, her appointment “doesn’t change a lot,” said Dan Quinn, the spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal watchdog of the board and fierce opponent of its social conservatives.
“She has voted in lockstep with Gail Lowe and Don McLeroy in the past," he said. "There's no real space between them."
McLeroy held the chairmanship from 2007 to 2009 and said Lowe and Cargill share many qualities. “She is so similar to Gail with her complete integrity and honesty," he said. "Those two ladies are some of the finest I ever met."
McLeroy suffered the same fate as Lowe during the 2009 legislative session. The Bryan dentist, who lost to current member Thomas Ratliff in the 2010 Republican primary, describes Cargill and Lowe as some of his best friends. He said Cargill was “the scientist on the board” and that she was known for independently investigating all the issues that came before it.
The board’s longest-serving current member, David Bradley, echoed McLeroy. “She does her homework,” said Bradley, who consistently votes with Cargill. “Sometimes she would make light of the fact that when I get to the meeting I'm just opening my agenda for the first time.”
He also praised her modesty, a quality he said would serve her well as chairwoman. “I don't think you'll ever find her using the word 'I,'” he said. “She blushes at the drop of a hat, quicker than Gail Lowe. So the guys on the board have to be very careful.”
Cargill’s critics point to her role in the rewrite of science curriculum as evidence that she has used her position on the board to promote her own political and religious beliefs. She was instrumental in pushing the new science standards that students "analyze, evaluate, and critique" evidence for scientific explanations for theories like evolution — a move praised by the Discovery Institute, which supports research challenging what its website refers to as "neo-Darwinian theory." During the debate on science curriculum, she also passed an amendment that added the discussion of different scientific estimates on the age of the universe to the standards.
In an interview, Cargill questioned what her religious beliefs had to do with the board’s business, and balked at describing her views on evolution. “I do go to a church that teaches that God created all life, so I do support that,” she said, adding, “All of us as board members have our own personal religious beliefs but we have to be professionals and stick to the business at hand.”
She emphasized that the science curriculum standards did not contain creationism and intelligent design, a statement Quinn called “very disingenuous.”
“You have standards that include classic intelligent design arguments that have been rejected in mainstream science for decades,” Quinn said. “Real scientists do not make arguments about the fossil record and the complexity of the cell when discussing evolution.”
McLeroy, who readily labels himself a creationist, said he and Cargill had never discussed her specific views on evolution while they served on the board together. Though he said she is “clearly an evolution skeptic,” he said he “never asked her how old she thought the Earth was.”
“I never tried to pin her down on that,” he said. “I never pushed it.”
In the short time since her appointment, Cargill has already given her opponents new ammunition. Addressing a Texas Eagle Forum audience this month, Cargill described her allies on the board as its “six true conservative Christians.” The comment earned Cargill the first negative headlines as chairwoman, and it is the subject of an inaugural post on a newly formed blog, “Christians Against Cargill,” targeting voters in her district.
State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, said she is waiting to judge Cargill on how she handles the debate over the supplemental science materials. But she said Cargill’s remark at the Eagle Forum meeting was “disheartening.”
“Her leadership skills will be sorely needed, but it seems like she's really stepped in it,” she said.
In her new position, Cargill will set the agenda for the board's quarterly meetings. She also has the task of facilitating the meetings — which can mean enforcing parliamentary rules and keeping members on topic. She will also occupy a less clearly defined role as the face and voice of education policy in Texas, in particular to out-of-state observers.
Though she said she had some nerves about leading her first meeting, Cargill said she felt well prepared from conversations with the governor, who she said told her to “stay focused on the job,” fellow board members and Texas Education Agency staff.
“As a teacher I’ve learned that you have to expect the unexpected,” she said. “As I've been calling the other board members to tell them, ‘I'm delighted to be your chairman,’ I have said ahead of time, ‘Thank you for your patience and your grace in helping me through the first meeting.’”