See? They Can Debate: Candidates for the SBOE Duke It Out

At the first SBOE debate, all the candidates ran against the current board—except the one current board member
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Democrat Judy Jennings wants to get on the State Board of Education to take out politics and partisan rancor. So in her first—and likely only—debate, she played hardball and attacked her Republican opponent Marsha Farney.  Contradiction? Maybe. It also may be her only shot at the seat.

Jennings doesn’t exactly have an easy race. The SBOE has earned national attention for its culture wars and debates over social conservatism—how to teach evolution, which figures to include in the state social studies standards. The debates have been dominated by a far right faction of seven socially conservative Republicans and a couple swing votes. The bloc is in danger, as its members have resigned or been defeated. But Jennings isn’t running against a self-proclaimed social conservative—she’s running for an open seat against a Republican who’s making the same promises to end partisan rancor.

After Farney said she would emphasize the need for respecting colleagues, Jenning came back swinging. “It is not enough to stand up and say I will get along with other members,” she announced to the small crowd on Monday morning at the Texas Business and Education Coalition. Jennings promised—twice—that she would work to rescind the social studies standards the board passed earlier this year.

Throughout their time onstage, Jennings worked hard to create a clear dividing line between herself and Farney.  Farney, on the other hand, keeping a careful balance between being conservative and not being one of the “state board” social conservatives—the bloc of seven that has ruled the board the last four years and sparked controversy on everything from biology to social studies. It wasn’t likely coincidental. Thomas Ratliff, the Republican who beat out social conservative Don McLeroy for his seat in the March primaries, told me he helped coach Farney for the debate. He won his race promising to be a conservative who would put an end to partisan politics and culture wars—the same promises Farney has made.

Meanwhile, in the other debate of the morning, incumbent board member Ken Mercer, a member of the social conservative bloc, stuck by the board’s decisions to disregard “expert” opinion in favor, he says, of input from parents and business leaders. “I know a lot of folks disagree with me,” he would say, before defending something obvious like making kids know their multiplication tables. Mercer argued the culture wars were really spun by members of the media who he said took the board’s decisions out of context.

The past culture wars still haunted most of the Monday morning debates, first between Mercer and his Democratic challenger Rebecca Bell-Metereau for District 5 and later in the Jennings-Farney battle for District 10. For weeks, it had seemed unlikely we’d see any type of debate.  After state Republican Party chair Steve Munisteri interceded, Farney and Mercer refused to participate in a forum sponsored by League of Women Voters and turned down a debate invitation from LULAC. This event, sponsored by the Texas Business and Education Coalition, had a three member panel with representation from TBEC, Texas Association of School Boards, and Texas Association of Business.

Jennings and Bell-Metereau, who often release joint statements and share a general consultant, have run campaigns based around similar themes: the board is too politicized, the social conservatives are too ideological, the board is just plain crazy. But their Republican opponents are very different. Farney has herself criticized the board’s divisiveness and unwillingness to listen to experts—she even flaunted her own “expert” credentials as a Ph.D in education. Meanwhile, Mercer, a member of the board’s conservative bloc, has stood behind his actions 100 percent.

That gave Bell-Metereau an easy entrance point, and she made the most of it at the debate. “I would like us to prepare [students] for the twenty-first century not 1950,” Bell-Metereau said, as Mercer defended the board’s push to bring back phonics and incorporate more memorization math. Mercer continued his defense, arguing that more emphasis on handwriting and grammar would help to bridge achievement gaps.  “Some people call that drill and kill,” he said. “I call it drill and develop confidence and skill.”

And while Bell-Metereau spoke out about the need for more expert opinion and teacher involvement, Mercer was the first one to argue for parental needs. “A lot of parents feel left out, feel pushed out” of the process, he said. That came out in high relief when the two candidates discussed teaching contraception in sex education. “What we have now in place is a sex education course that says we’ll teach you everything except how you prevent pregnancy and how you prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases,” Bell-Metereau said, though she noted Texas does not forbid teaching such things.

Meanwhile, Mercer repeated the same thing over and over: “We do not want a how-to manual.”

“Wow,” said one of the reporters nearby. “Not hard to tell which race has the incumbent.”

Jennings and Farney didn’t fit quite as neatly, despite Jennings’ best efforts to cast Farney far right. After Jennings laughed off a question asking whether she believed humans and dinsaurs walked the earth together—”That’s outrageous!”—Farney took a measured approach. While she too does not believe that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together, she argued for local control. “If a school district wants to [teach creationism], they can” in an alternative course, she said. In fact local control was a kind of mantra for Farney on hot button issues ranging from abstinence education to building curricula.

In some ways the races look competitive. According to the most recent fundraising totals, Bell-Metereau has $50,000 on hand compared with Mercer’s $12,000 and Jennings has a $30,000 fundraising lead over Farney. “People across both parties are agreeing with my message,” said Jennings. If she sounds confident enough, it may be because she’s gotten attention from DailyKos and outraised many expectations.

But that’s not the whole story. Mercer already proved himself to be quite the closer in the GOP primaries, when he beat soundly San Antonio establishment candidate Tim Tuggey despite Tuggey’s support from Republican big shot Red McCombs. Farney, on the other hand, invested over $100,000 of her own money into her primary against social conservative Brian Russell. In both cases, the districts appear to swing Republican. “I don’t think either Democrat has a chance,” said Ratliff said between the debates. “I don’t think either district is competitive for a Democrat.”

In the mean time, the elections will undoubtedly get more coverage nationally, where media will like cast the elections between the crazies and the sane. But it’s anyone’s guess who voters will see on each side.