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Coming Soon: State Bored of Education?

New SBOE members may be bring relative calm to the normally tempestuous board
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As the buzz continues about this week’s State Board of Education meeting (which I’ll be covering here), it brings to mind one incontrovertible truth: This board is not boring. We can’t know if this meeting will lead to members storming out in protest or to a debate on the importance of country versus hip-hop music. But with a closely divided board—seven Christian conservatives, a couple of occasional swing votes and all the vitriol one could hope for—the meeting to confirm social studies standards will almost definitely send up sparks.

My advice? Enjoy the fun while it lasts, because soon these meetings may be about as exciting as, well, every other governmental agency meeting.

Yes, peace could soon reign around Texas’ biggest culture-war circus. Last week, at an SBOE candidate forum sponsored by the Texas Business and Education Coalition, the incoming replacements for several members who have already lost or resigned their seats presented themselves to the education community. Their goal? A de-politicized board, they said—one that trusts the education establishment. Without a single incumbent there to defend the current board (though all those running were invited), the new candidates all spoke of the need for a calmer tone at future meetings.

That effort will be aided by the departure of Don McLeroy, the ultra-conservative lightning rod who ignited many of the board’s most controversial moments (he led the fight for adding language about the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution” into science textbooks, and has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to Al Jazeera). McLeroy lost his seat in the GOP primary. And then there’s Cynthia Dunbar, a McLeroy supporter whose book refers to public schools as “a subtly deceptive tool of perversion.” She announced she wouldn’t run again a few months ago, but she still got her close-up in the British Guardian, part of the international press having a jolly time with this story of Texas’ backward tendencies. Dunbar’s seat will now belong to either Republican Marsha Farney or Democrat Judy Jennings (now facing a runoff). Both of them have Ph.d.’s in education.

“I want to vote for all of them!” Farney gushed at one point, gesturing to the others on the podium. It wasn’t entirely shocking. Ratliff sounded a lot like Farney, who sounded, well, a lot like Democrat Michael Soto.

Soto and Republican George Clayton are two other likely additions to the board—both replacing social conservative swing votes. Soto will likely take over from Rick Agosto, a Democrat with many enemies and even more ethics questions who sometimes voted with the conservatives on curricular issues.

Soto nodded in agreement with others on the incoming board, as they all reassured the crowd that, in its next incarnation, the board wouldn’t provoke headlines on The Colbert Report.

“The board doesn’t have a structural problem, it has a personality problem,” Ratliff told the assembled crowd, which included the major teachers groups and the Texas PTA.

The only nominee not ready to hold hands and sing Kumbaya was George Clayton, a Dallas high school teacher, who went from being a political unknown to a celebrated dark horse when he beat a long-time incumbent Geraldine “Tincy” Miller. He was angry and let it show. But he wasn’t angry about the education establishment or who was included in the standards. Nope. He just wants to lobby for fewer TAKS tests. On the curriculum squabbling, he simply said, “Those things do not come into [my school] building.”

Oh. Well then.

Clayton, Soto, Ratliff and either Farney or Jennings will take office in January. They promise they’ll make the board a lot more functional and a lot less, well, funny. But there’s always the chance they’ll start picking fights and choosing sides once they join up. After all, joining the board does seem to have that effect on people.