CANTON — Today’s schoolchildren favor socialism over the free market. Common Core educational standards — banned in Texas — have crept into the classroom. And Texas schools should “teach the knowledge and skills that made the United States the leader of the world,” including cursive, phonics and multiplication tables.
State Board of Education hopeful Mary Lou Bruner’s fear-inducing, back-to-basics talking points have not changed much during a GOP runoff campaign that began after she nearly won a three-way primary to represent northeast Texas on the panel that sets state curriculum and adopts textbooks.
Neither, though, have Keven Ellis’.
Despite finishing a distant second to Bruner in the March 1 primary, when GOP voters demonstrated a strong preference for far-right candidates, Ellis has deliberately stuck to his policy-focused message: He wants to support educators by working with them rather than against them, narrow a curriculum he describes as “a mile wide and an inch deep” and overhaul the current standardized testing regime. That is, when he's not urging voters to ignore Bruner’s message of alarm.
“You will hear her say that children belong to the parents and not the government — and of course they do — but she has also said that if your children go to school saying things like ‘abortion is wrong’ and they don’t believe in global warming, they could get a visit from the school administrator” and put themselves at risk of being taken away by Child Protective Services, Ellis said earlier this month during a sparsely attended GOP runoff forum in the East Texas town of Canton.
Ellis, a 45-year-old Lufkin chiropractor, who has served for three years on the local school board and is now its president, added that the Texas Legislature has already banned Common Core, and the state curriculum still includes cursive, phonics and multiplication tables.
“It’s all about inciting fear,” he said. “Please see through this.”
Bruner, a conservative activist who worked in East Texas schools for 36 years as a teacher, counselor and educational diagnostician before retiring in 2009, said there's plenty of reasons to be afraid of "elites in the federal government that are trying to give us a one-size-fits-all, top-down education system.”
“If that is fearmongering, I wish people had spoken out harder and heavier in Germany before Hitler took over,” she said. “We should be scared when they want to take away from us what our government was built upon and totally revamp it and make it like the socialist and communist countries of the world.”
The 69-year-old from Mineola, who won 48 percent of the March primary vote to Ellis' 31 percent, also bashed reporters for fixating on her conspiracy theory-laden Facebook posts during the primary campaign. Now mostly hidden from public view, they contended that President Obama worked as a gay prostitute in his youth to pay for a drug habit and that the Democratic Party was behind President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“They always want to smear my name and start with that before they ask me what I want to do on the State Board of Education,” she said, adding in an interview that “I’m really sick and tired of the way they’ve treated me."
The GOP forum in Canton was one of just a handful of events during the nearly three-month runoff campaign where both candidates were present. Several local conservative groups, which have overwhelmingly backed Bruner, have not invited Ellis to meet with them or speak at their events, according to Ellis and local activists. One of the groups, though, is currently reconsidering its endorsement of Bruner after she made several inaccurate statements in a speech to East Texas superintendents.
“That is counter to what we should be about,” said Dwayne “Doc” Collins, a Canton activist who founded five local Tea Party groups and organized the forum. The 70-year-old veterinarian said he’s “going to have to break with a lot of my fellow Tea Partiers” to support Ellis.
Ellis “has a lot of positive things he could bring to the state school board,” said Collins, who has known Bruner for years. “He would be quite a bit more cooperative ... less confrontational.”
But many who attended the forum said it was the first time they had even heard of Ellis or knew there was another candidate in the race besides Bruner. Several said they were leaning toward Bruner after hearing from both candidates because she spoke to their concerns — namely Common Core — and demonstrated conviction.
“She was boisterous. She didn’t back down,” said Patrick Wilson, a retiree who now works as a substitute teacher in Canton.
"She's my gal," Jon Smith, another local retiree, told The Texas Tribune at the forum. “She wants to get rid of the Common Core that’s starting.”
Almost every other state has adopted Common Core, the K-12 educational standards championed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Officers — and incentivized when the Obama administration tied their adoption to federal grant eligibility. But Texas’ GOP leaders have rejected the standards for a perceived liberal bias, and the Legislature passed a bill in 2013 banning their adoption or use.
Ellis says he is also opposed to Common Core but described it in an interview as a “non-issue” despite the fact that it’s clearly a concern among his would-be constituents.
Meanwhile, he’s hoping Bruner’s “outlandish comments" will help his cause.
Inaccurate statistics Bruner cited earlier this month during a speech to Region 7 superintendents — including the percentage of students enrolled in special education and the number of substitute teachers working in Lufkin schools — have gotten her in hot water with the influential East Texas Tea Party group Grassroots America — We the People, which endorsed Bruner in the primary.
The Smith County-based group has asked her to “produce her sources” and is “reconsidering” its endorsement, Executive Director JoAnn Fleming said in a text message. The group has also said it doesn’t agree with Bruner’s Facebook posts.
While some of the figures cited in the speech, captured in a cellphone video and circulated online in recent weeks, may have been wrong, Bruner said, “Everything I said is basically true,” including that schools are struggling with teacher shortages and so have to use substitutes.
“Let me tell you what, the superintendents are not all Republicans,” Bruner said. “Many of them are Democrats, and they have an agenda.”
Bruner confirmed she has not received any endorsements from Texas superintendents. More than 70 of them have endorsed Ellis in the race, as well as statewide teacher groups and the Texas Parent PAC. Ellis also has received endorsements from state Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin and outgoing House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen, both of whom are key members of the more moderate bloc of Republicans in the Texas House aligned with Speaker Joe Straus.
Whoever prevails in next week's runoff will face Democrat Amanda Rudolph in the November general election. Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said he doesn't expect Bruner's comments to hurt her much.
Ultraconservative GOP runoff voters are "going to focus on the bigger picture of going back to basics — having schools that reflect their values and looking to keep Common Core out of Texas,” Jones said. “Perhaps they wouldn’t say that Obama was a former prostitute financing his drug habit, but they do not have a favorable opinion of President Obama and therefore aren’t going to be turned off by that statement.”
Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.