As almost half of the 15 members of the Texas State Board of Education complete their first term in January, at least one new face, and perhaps three, could join the ranks of newcomers to the board that oversees the state’s public schools.
Barring a general election upset, whether that happens will likely be determined in three March primary races. Two longtime Republican incumbents, Pat Hardy of Fort Worth and David Bradley of Beaumont, face challengers. And three candidates are vying to replace Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight, who announced last year she would not run for re-election after 12 years on the board.
The primaries follow a busy year in which SBOE members undertook a review of a controversial state-approved curriculum system known as CSCOPE and implemented major legislative changes to high school graduation requirements. The legislation involved a sweeping overhaul of the state's high school curriculum that included dropping an existing requirement that all students take algebra II to graduate in favor of allowing their selection of diploma "endorsements" in specialized areas like science and technology, business, or humanities to determine which math courses they take.
How the board has handled its purview over curriculum standards has cropped up in varying ways in each of the three races.
Attacks over Hardy’s role in creating a controversial state-approved curriculum system known as CSCOPE have driven the campaigns of her opponents, real estate agent Lady Theresa Thombs and restaurant manager Eric Mahroum.
Thombs — who uses an honorific bestowed on her by the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Justice, an organization that sponsors international humanitarian missions — said that she wanted the state board to “get out of the business of telling teachers how to teach.”
She said that after watching Hardy, an instructional specialist and former teacher who was elected in 2002, in board meetings for 12 years, she believed the incumbent had been a “driving force” in pushing CSCOPE, which conservative activists have said promotes a liberal agenda.
Hardy did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but at a February candidate fair in Tarrant County, she told The Texas Tribune she believed her opponents had targeted her because of her willingness to work with her more moderate Republicans colleagues on the board to find solutions.
She also pointed to a review of CSCOPE initiated by the State Board of Education that found that claims it promoted liberal indoctrination were unfounded.
The board’s algebra II vote was among the reasons Erika Beltran, one of three candidates competing in the Democratic primary for Knight’s seat, said she knew her decision to run was the right one.
“We can’t afford to backtrack on expectations. Minority students are underperforming across the board, and we need to be making sure that all our students are graduating prepared for college,” she said.
Beltran, a program director for the nonprofit Teaching Trust, which pushes for reforms to improve teacher quality, said her background as both an educator and advocate has prepared her well for the board.
“This district deserves a representative that is going to really focus on what students in Texas need — rigorous instruction, great teachers and excellent schools,” said Beltran, who grew up attending public schools in the district.
Knight has endorsed a different candidate in the race to replace her: Andrea Hilburn, a Dallas Independent School District administrator.
“She is a person who will speak her mind, and I like people who will tell it like it is,” Knight said.
Hilburn did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment, but the third candidate in the race, A. Denise Russell, said that while she agreed with Beltran about setting high expectations for all students, she believed that House Bill 5, the legislation lawmakers passed on graduation requirements, and the board’s subsequent vote were the right calls.
“The spirit of the House bill is great,” she said, adding that it would be important to ensure that parents and students were aware of the new diploma "endorsements" available.
Different views on the legislative changes have also highlighted a new contrast in an old rivalry between Bradley and his opponent, Rita Ashley, a former teacher and legislative staffer who is attempting for the second time to unseat him after a failed bid in 2012.
A board member since 1996, Bradley has been vocal about his concern that the legislative changes passed in 2013 would hurt student performance and create administrative burdens for school districts. When it came time for the board to determine the details of HB 5, Bradley supported a proposal to add algebra II back in as a requirement. The proposal ultimately failed, after the legislation’s two authors, House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, told the board that such a move would go against their intention when they passed the bill.
Ashley, who did not return a request for comment, has said in her campaign literature that she supports the changes. She has received the endorsements of five Republican legislators, all of whom voted for HB 5, in her district: state Sen. Robert Nichols and former state Sen. Tommy Williams, and state Reps. John Otto, Dennis Bonnen and Allan Ritter.
In an interview, Bradley dismissed the possibility that his opposition to the legislation had added momentum to his opponent’s campaign. He said that in his conversations with state lawmakers, he had discovered many of them had been unaware of the far-reaching effects of HB 5 when they voted for it.
“Most of them are somewhat surprised. The message that I keep getting back from most of the rank and file in my district was, ‘We were told not to object, go along and push this through,’” he said. “Amendments were discouraged, as was discussion.”