Two influential incumbents on the State Board of Education — who are often at odds with each other — are both facing primary challenges that could result in a power shift on the fractious board.
Thomas Ratliff won a spot on the board after a 402-vote victory in the 2010 GOP primary over Don McLeroy, who brought international attention to the state with his spirited defense of creationism. Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant native who campaigned on a platform of taking politics out of education, has become one of the Republican-controlled board’s reliably moderate voices.
He has also been a thorn in the side of David Bradley, widely considered the ringleader of the strictly allied social conservatives who led the board to adopt science standards that required educators to teach "all sides" of evolution in 2009 and pushed for ideologically driven revisions to social studies standards in 2010.
During their time on the board, the two have been on opposing sides of issues like withdrawing money from the $25 billion Permanent School Fund to bridge the state-funding gap for public schools, requiring amendments to curriculum to be laid out at least 24 hours before a vote, and handing more authority to school districts for textbook purchases.
Now they both find themselves entangled in what are likely the board’s two most closely watched primary races.
When Ratliff ousted McLeroy, he also loosened the social conservative faction's chokehold on the 15-member board by taking away its seventh vote. This time around, with all incumbents in contested primaries — save for Fresno Democrat Lawrence Allen and El Paso Republican Charlie Garza — and multiple candidates vying for the three open seats the control of the board is once again very much up for grabs.
(The one question left for the general election is Garza, who was elected in 2010 in a Democratic leaning district.)
Bradley has his first serious primary opponent since he was elected to the District 7 seat. Rita Ashley, a former teacher and clerk for the Texas House’s Public Education Committee, has raised more than $30,000 in her bid to unseat him. Ashley has attracted the endorsements of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association and the Texas Parent PAC. Grocery tycoon Charles Butt, the founder of the education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas, has also donated to her campaign.
The Beaumont Republican said he views Ashley as part of a “slate” of candidates challenging the conservative members on the board with “all the same talking points and donors.”
“She has won the sign war, and she can outspend me,” he said, but he added that he’s confident that he appeals to the “party faithful.”
For her part, Ashley disputed that she had been recruited to oppose Bradley.
“I've been screaming about David Bradley for 12 years,” she said, adding that she only decided to run against him when she realized that no one else was. “I was not going to give him a free pass. He might beat me, but he was going to have to work for it.”
The conservative establishment has lined up behind Ratliff’s District 9 opponent, Randy Stevenson, who has the backing of the Young Conservatives of Texas, the Texas Alliance for Life, the Texas Home School Coalition and several Republican county chairs in the district. Stevenson, a Tyler businessman, served on the board from 1994 to 1999.
Ratliff said he wasn’t fazed by the show of support for his opponent, noting that he won his race in 2010 under similar circumstances. He also said that this time around, the education community is paying closer attention to primary races, a factor that will weigh in his favor.
That has proved true for at least two organizations, the Association of Texas Professional Educators and Texas Parent PAC, which have both upped their involvement in state board races.
Monty Exter, a lobbyist with ATPE, said the organization’s political action committee has invested “more than we traditionally do” in the SBOE primaries.
“The is the first time when so many folks have been challenged in the primary,” he said, “We see that as an opportunity to come in and really have an impact.”
The PAC has donated to Ashley, Ratliff, and Linda Ellis, a teacher who is challenging Bradley ally and board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, of District 8. It has also taken sides in two open races to replace Bob Craig, a Lubbock Republican in District 15, and Marsha Farney, a Georgetown Republican in District 10, backing Anette Carlisle and Rebecca Osborne, respectively.
Texas Parent PAC usually focuses its resources on legislative races, chairwoman Carolyn Boyle said, but it was motivated to enter the realm of the SBOE when Craig, a longtime member, stepped down.
“That was a key spot because that person represents 77 counties in Texas,” Boyle said. “It is a huge district with so many public schools.”
The group has donated $2,500 to Carlisle, a former Amarillo ISD board president who has been endorsed by Craig.
But some still doubt that the increased involvement of groups like ATPE and the Texas Parent PAC in the state board races will swing their outcomes.
“I don’t think you are going to see a whole lot change on the Republican side,” said Jonathan Saenz, the director of legislative affairs for the conservative Liberty Institute.
The exceptions, he said, could be Ratliff and District 12's George Clayton, another incumbent in the midst of his first re-election bid. Clayton has two primary challengers, one of whom is Geraldine Miller, whom he ousted to join the board. So far, Miller has spent more than $90,000 to get her old seat back.
The outcome of the race may also depend on how GOP voters react to Clayton’s sexual orientation. The former English teacher and Dallas ISD administrator, who is gay, disclosed his sexuality in an email to members of the media in November after he learned it had become the topic of conversation at a Republican women’s club.
At the time, Clayton told The Texas Tribune that whether it became a liability depended on his opponent and “the support she has from a media eager to wallow in a ‘scandal.’”
Seven months later, he said he felt it had been a "non-issue" in the campaign.
"However, [there] could be a powerful silence working against me," he wrote in an email. "I have remained focused on my experience as an educator."