At Senate Hearing, Donna Campbell Misses A Link or Two

At confirmation hearing for SBOE chair Barbara Cargill, freshman Sen. Donna Campbell steals the show.
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State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) wasn't the only one who seemed surprised by Campbell's line of questioning.
State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) wasn't the only one who seemed surprised by Campbell's line of questioning.

State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill sat down before the Senate Nominations Committee this morning to make a promise: under her watch, the board won’t be the “circus” it’s been in the past.

Instead, while Cargill carefully massaged away her contentious history, a truly remarkable circus act played out across from her, in the person of freshman Sen. Donna Campbell.

Cargill’s prospective nomination for another term as chair caught the ire of church-state separation groups like Texas Freedom Network and Americans United. In 2011, Cargill told a Texas Eagle Forum crowd they could count on only the “true conservative Christians” serving on the board, and—earlier this month—suggesting that textbook publishers should “soften” their language about the scientific merits of evolution.

Today, though, we met the kinder, gentler Barbara Cargill. When Sen. Kirk Watson asked Cargill about her practice, in the past, of asking textbook reviewers whether they were conservative, she said, “I don’t ask that question anymore.” Cargill said she called members of the board to apologize after her comment about the “true conservative Christians.”

Sure, there was the reference to David Barton, who she called “a leading historian of our state, if not the nation.” And yes, she made references to teaching about “stasis” and “transitional fossils“—dog-whistle references to anti-evolution critiques of the fossil record. But for the most part, things were progressing sanely enough until Donna Campbell piped up, “I wanna ask something.”

“Drinking from the fire hydrant here. Are we saying here that there is opposition because we do not have the scientific facts to teach creation, that God did create world and man?” Campbell wondered. “I mean, are we trying to eliminate that, or are we just saying we want to include evolution? Or… where are we there?”

Campbell, the San Antonio Republican and tea party-backed neophyte who upset long-serving Sen. Jeff Wentworth in a 2012 primary runoff, seemed genuinely baffled to learn that Texas students don’t already learn creationism in class. (Federal courts long ago ruled that public schools couldn’t teach creationism. Or Intelligent Design, as it’s more fashionably known today. Or “Intellectual Design,” as Campbell called it a few minutes later.)

An odd, pregnant pause followed Campbell’s questions. Cargill seemed unsure how to proceed after taking such great pains to prove what a pro-science moderate she was. “Um,” is what Cargill said.

“For my edification,” Campbell urged.

Cargill responded by repeating her support for teaching the supposed evidence for evolution, as well as those troublesome gaps in the fossil record. What’s most important, Cargill said, is that no students are discouraged from asking questions in science class.

It was a deft redirection, and it might have ended there had Campbell not persisted, and unleashed the following:

“We don’t want to eliminate those things that you still do have to go on faith that are out there. I would venture to—we’re not gonna know until we go onto eternity. Obviously, I’m a Christian. I do believe in God as the creator of life … I’m just trying to see, and I don’t know if it’s your purview or I need to check with the TEA where that falls in line to make sure we’re not just teaching that evolution is our only—because we can measure—to me obviously, if I was creating anything and had a good model like DNA, I’d use it. And just tweak it a bit, and have a monkey here and a fish here, whatever.

“So I’m not sure you’re even the right place for me to go and double-check that.”

This time, it was up to Sen. Kirk Watson to rein the hearing in, and remind Campbell, the Vice Chair of the Senate Nominations Committee, why they were all in that room together.

“They’re the ones that are in a position to establish what’s in the textbook,” Watson said, referring to the state board.

“Uh-huh?” Campbell prodded.

“She, as chair,” Watson slowly explained, “is an in enormously powerful position to push publishers of textbooks and instructional materials. And there has been a significant debate on this board, including I’d point out, prior chairs who took very strong positions.”

With that Campbell seemed satisfied, or at least distracted, and Watson—who asked the only tough questions of Cargill this morning—seemed ready to throw his support behind nominating her for another term as chair. The committee will take an informal vote on Cargill Tuesday.

“I want to make sure that our chair of the SBOE is, in fact, making sure that good science is taught,” Watson said. “I think I have that commitment from her.”

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

  • Bruce J. Martin

    Good grief. And these people hold public office.

  • http://www.facebook.com/yarnmaven Julia Gregory Poirier

    I’m just stunned. Our children are totally hosed.

  • http://twitter.com/Tejanarusa Tejanarusa

    Wentworth was no prize, but he at least knew how the legislature, and government in general, worked. I do not think Camobell does.
    To my great frustration, she is (theoretically) my state senator. The neighborhood was full of her yard signs, even though she refused to appear at any event to meet voters; she was “too busy.” Head-to-desk. Pity us in her district.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sam-Davis/1109907684 Sam Davis

    If Campbell is a Christian, her proposals, beliefs about women’s health care, and support of TEA Party principles don’t indicate it.

  • redscream5

    Why don’t they just have a religious studies or comparative religions elective in school so the religious right will be satisfied and leave their non-science out of the science classroom?

    There’s nothing wrong with studying religion, in fact learning about the world’s religions can give you insight into how the global community works, but it belongs in its own class. It should not be used to hijack science classrooms, which are already academically heavy.

  • David Webb

    Cargill and her right wing friends really would like to do away with the teaching of evolution and just teach recent creationism, but they are struggling to find a politically correct way to accomplish this. But make no mistake, that is what they would like. Because the Earth really is flat, and the sun revolves around Earth, and the moon landing in July 1969 was just a big Hollywood hoax to these nuts.

  • Thought_is_free

    That people like Cargill are serving on the State Board of Education in Texas is a reflection of how scientifically ignorant voters (and legislators) are. They don’t even know the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. A hypothesis is a guess, but a theory is a well thought out explanation of reality. Atomic theory is the foundation of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, things that exist in reality. Evolution is also a theory, substantiated by many fields of science, including biochemistry (as evidenced by the discovery of DNA), Their religion and indeed their god is just a hypothesis, a guess, that the universe had to be created by a supernatural being. Since they cannot prove he exists, they have to work hard to cast doubt on the theory that actually works—evolution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.bentley.524 Rick Bentley

    Donna Campbell does NOT respond to her constituents.

  • Steve Fischer

    Don’t just be stunned and whine, a moderate intelligent Republican (It’s a totally Republican District) is going to challenge her in the 2014 GOP Primary. He will need your help.