Approving textbooks, crafting curriculum standards and setting graduation requirements for the state’s more than 5 million public school students. The role of the Republican-dominated Texas Board of Education remains undoubtedly influential even as the Legislature has removed some of its powers over the decades following a series of embarrassing kerfuffles.
The stakes rarely get much buzz during the general election season, however. That’s because the 15 sprawling districts are drawn to be friendly to Republican or Democratic candidates — mostly the former — meaning the shakeups are usually reserved for the spring primary elections.
But several Democrats aiming to unseat incumbent Republicans from the education board this fall say this year could be different.
Those candidates — two of whom are running for the third time — say the relative unpopularity of the Republican at the top of the ticket, Donald Trump, will help propel them to victory in the Nov. 8 general election. And observers and experts say their contention isn’t too far off base.
At least one SBOE race is “very much in play,” said Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. He’s referring to District 5, where Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau is attempting to unseat incumbent Republican Ken Mercer for the third time. The district reaches from Austin to San Antonio, extending northwest to cover several Hill County counties such as Llano and Kerr.
While Mercer — a fixture of the board’s far-right faction — is still the favorite to win, Jones noted the district is now “pink, not red” after the latest round of redistricting. With Trump also headlining the ticket, “the race stands to be the most tightly contested SBOE general election contest in more than a dozen years,” Jones wrote in an email.
Several recent polls show Trump is statistically tied with Democrat Hillary Clinton in GOP-friendly Texas.
Bell-Metereau, 66, a Texas State University English professor and former Fulbright scholar, notes that Mercer’s margin of victory has gotten smaller each time she’s run against him. In 2012, with Green and Libertarian party candidates on the ticket, Mercer, 61, an IT project manager and former state representative from San Antonio, won re-election with 51 percent of the vote. This year, there are only three candidates on the ticket, including Libertarian Ricardo Perkins, providing even more hope to Bell-Metereau.
“People are starting to look at the Republican brand with a little more skepticism,” she said. “I can’t help but see it as helping me.”
Like other Democratic candidates, Bell-Metereau has been inspired to run in large part by the extreme views espoused by Mercer and other members of the board’s social conservative bloc, whose membership has diminished somewhat in recent years. The manifestation of those views — in the form of curriculum, textbooks and agonizing ideological debates — has grabbed national headlines for years now and inspired legislation to rein in the board’s power.
Most recently, the board has garnered scrutiny over a ninth-grade world geography textbook that casually described African slaves as immigrant “workers.” Next month, it is expected to decide whether to approve another textbook for high school Mexican-American studies courses that scholars and Hispanic activists describe as blatantly racist and historically inaccurate. (The publisher is a former board member.)
The board also is moving to narrow biology curriculum standards before next school year, all but guaranteeing more fireworks over how to teach evolution.
Eight of the board's seats are up for election this year, with six Republican incumbents seeking re-election. Only three general election races are contested, however, including one where Democrat Georgina Pérez and Green Party candidate Hugo Noyola Jr. are vying to represent District 1 in far West Texas, which is up for grabs after Democrat Martha Dominguez decided not to seek re-election. Pérez is a 41-year-old former teacher and University of Texas at El Paso education doctoral student being supported by several El Paso state lawmakers; Noyola, 26, works in Laredo as a production assistant at a local television station.
Jones said District 10, where Democrat Judy Jennings is challenging incumbent Republican Tom Maynard of Georgetown — also for the third time — is in play, too, although to a lesser extent. The district is wedged between Austin and Houston.
“Maynard remains a very heavy favorite to win in a district where Republicans enjoy a 10-point cushion even in the worst of times (pre-Trump worst of times, at least),” he said. “At this point, the best Democrat Judy Jennings can likely hope for is to keep Maynard’s margin of victory in the single digits.”
Maynard, 52, is one of the more moderate Republican education board members. The former school board member now heads the Texas FFA Association, a youth group focused on agriculture. Jennings, 62, formerly worked in the accountability division at the Texas Education Agency and now oversees assessment at Resources for Learning, an education consultancy.
Ten of the 15 board members are Republicans. With Trump at the top of the ticket, the margin of victory for incumbent Republicans in other races — SBOE and otherwise — may also be slimmer, Jones said.
Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning organization that closely monitors the education board, agreed.
“SBOE districts are so gerrymandered that general elections often aren’t competitive, but I think it’s true that the Trump disaster has at least the potential to shake things up in a lot of races up and down the ballot,” he wrote in an email, adding that “it probably helps challengers that some state board members sound so much like Trump.”
Dr. Dakota Carter, the Democrat trying to unseat Republican board chairwoman Donna Bahorich, said “I think a lot of people are going to be very surprised Nov. 8.” Libertarian Whitney Bilyeu and Laura Palmer, a Green Party candidate, also are in the race.
“Unfortunately, what happens is these school board positions don’t get a lot of attention and usually go the way that several of the more well-known races go,” Carter said. “And so I think Donna has a real shot of this being her only term.”
The 28-year-old Houston adolescent psychiatry resident and education doctoral student acknowledges he faces an uphill battle, especially as an openly gay candidate running in a conservative-leaning district. He also faces a steep climb given Bahorich’s relative popularity. The local teachers union — usually quick to endorse a Democratic candidate — has decided not to pick a side this time, praising Bahorich for her collaborative leadership style. The 61-year-old community volunteer and Republican Party activist worked for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick when he was a state senator — first as his campaign manager, later as his district director, campaign treasurer and communications director.
District 9 is the SBOE district Jones said is least likely to pick a Democrat to serve, describing it as the least anti-Trump out of all of them. The massive, 30-plus county district spans deeply conservative East Texas and also is up for grabs with incumbent Republican Thomas Ratliff not seeking re-election.
In that race, Democrat Amanda Rudolph, a 43-year-old secondary education professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, is facing off against Republican Keven Ellis, 45. The Lufkin chiropractor’s primary race grabbed national headlines because of his opponent’s extreme comments, including allegations that President Obama worked as a prostitute in his early 20s to fund a drug habit. Libertarian Anastasia Wilford, a 29-year-old biochemistry student at the University of Texas at Tyler, also is in the race.
Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:
- In September, Hispanic advocates, activists and elected officials from across the state called on the Texas Board of Education to reject a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook they blasted as racist and inaccurate.
- The publisher of one of Texas’ controversial social studies textbooks has agreed to change a caption that describes African slaves as immigrant “workers” after a Houston-area mom’s social media complaints went viral.
- In a stunning comeback, State Board of Education candidate Keven Ellis won a Republican primary runoff over Mary Lou Bruner, who drew national attention for objectionable social media posts.