Should State Board of Education Be Abolished?

Texas’ State Board of Education didn’t distinguish itself in the annals of good public-policy making last week. And that’s putting it gently.

Even by its own low standards, the State Board really outdid itself.

The 15 board members spent three days toying with the social-studies curriculum that students will study in Texas public schools. As usual, board members tried to insert their own political and religious beliefs into the curriculum. Everyone was guilty of this, though the seven Christian conservatives on the board were the worst offenders. They treated the social studies standards like it was their own manifesto.

You’ve no doubt heard the highlights by now: Their decision that kids shouldn’t learn separation of church and state because this group of 15 apparent constitutional scholars believes the fringe view that the founders never intended the two to be separated; the removal of hip hop from the standards because of its “nihilism” (either they don’t know what nihilism means or they’ve never listened to hip hop or both); and the determination that only white people died defending the Alamo. There were many more embarrassing moments.

In the past few days, every major newspaper in Texas has editorialized that the State Board needs to be reined in and that we need to elect more sensible members. The Statesman was the latest to chime in today with an opinion piece entitled, “Vote Some Sense Into State Board.”

That’s a quaint notion. Problem is, nobody follows State Board elections. The direction of the board is often determined in low-turnout, regional GOP primaries, which means several hundred voters in a small section of Texas can largely determine education policy for the whole state. While the recent primary results in State Board races signaled a momentary shift back toward the center, that may only be temporary. Christian conservative activists will certainly try again to take over the board.

So it might be time to simply abolish the board all together.

I explored that issue in a short piece for the magazine last week (see third item down). I wrote:

“Given that board meetings have devolved into one culture-war battle after another, in which dentists and insurance salesmen on the board waste hours debating the details of evolution, global warming, geology and world history—subjects about which they have little expertise—should the board even exist?

“The duties of the board—developing curriculum, approving textbooks, and overseeing the multibillion dollar Texas school fund—could easily be handled by the Texas Education Agency.”

I can think of no other state agency that has a separately elected board of non-experts that controls key agency functions. Some people argue that education is so important, it requires this added layer of policy-making (and I’m using that term in its loosest sense).

But is education any more important than other policy areas—like ensuring we have clean air, monitoring doctors, dispensing food stamps to poor families, determining which children receive government health insurance—that we delegate  to administrative agencies? I don’t think so.

In fact, one frustrated board member, Mary Helen Berlanga, even said several times during last week’s meeting that the Legislature should consider abolishing the State Board, telling the Texas Tribune that, “I think we’re going downhill.”

In the 2009 session, state lawmakers from both parties proposed bills that would have stripped the State Board of much of its power or abolished it entirely. None of them came close to passing. But there’s always next session.

And after another State Board meeting filled with cringe-worthy moments, quite a few legislators probably find the notion of abolishing the board rather appealing.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

Published at 5:44 pm CST
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