The Runoffs: The SBOE Comes Back from Loonyville


Dave Mann

It’s hard to discern any larger meaning from a runoff election. The turnout is so small—when I voted yesterday, I was the only voter at my polling location, and the poll workers looked bored to death—that it’s dangerous to tease out any larger political trends.

What we saw last night were elections being lost by unqualified candidates—such as Rick Green, the right-wing former state rep. who once got embroiled in an ethics scandal after he used his state office space to pitch vitamin supplements and who recently decided he was qualified for the Texas Supreme Court. We also saw incumbents shoot themselves in the foot—looking at you, Norma Chavez. The Democratic rep from El Paso recently made disparaging remarks about her opponent’s sexual orientation. And that was after she penned the infamous “U R not my friend” note during the 2009 session.

Burka seems to think that longtime Lubbock state Rep. Delwin Jones’ loss in a GOP runoff—along with loses by several other establishment-backed candidates— foretells an anti-incumbent wave. Perhaps. I’m not going to argue he’s wrong, but runoffs are strange beasts. Jones seems to have run up against a more energized and right-wing opponent whose attacks resonated with right-leaning Republican primary voters. Maybe there’s a larger trend there, but I’m not so sure.

But there was one race I was watching intently—a race that’s not only part of a wider trend, but will have an immediate impact on policy: the runoff for the open seat on the State Board of Education.

Unless you’ve been walking the Earth like Kane in Kung Fu, you don’t need any reminding of what an embarrassment the State Board has been lately.

But those days appear to be over—at least for a while. The reign of Christian conservatives on the State Board who have made Texas a national laughingstock has—after last night’s results—officially ended.

Marsha Farney, a central Texas educator and self-described “common sense conservative,” defeated her right-wing opponent last night. Farney will take the seat of Cynthia Dunbar, who’s leaving the board after one of the most unusual stints in office you’ll ever see from a public servant. (If you need refreshing, click here to read what she wrote about Obama during the 2008 campaign.)

Dunbar had hand-picked Brian Russell as her successor. Russell, an Austin attorney, had adorned his campaign signs with a school bus image, an irony given that he home schools his kids. It wasn’t clear that he had much love for the public-school system, which seems a candidate should have if he or she wants to serve on the school board.

Rather, it was evident from Russell’s campaign site that his agenda was to infuse more Christian-right ideology into the State Board:

“I am a pro-life, pro-family conservative Republican candidate for State Board of Education, District 10. I believe in a rigorous, knowledge-based education that teaches: an unashamedly patriotic view of American history, emphasizing the God-given individual rights and limited government enshrined in the Constitution.”

He also advocates “rigorous science standards by the SBOE that permit students to think for themselves and ask questions about scientific theories like evolution and man-made global warming.”

Farney is a mainstream conservative Republican. On her site, she wrote:

“Providing a foundation of early proficiency in the core curriculum areas of reading, writing and mathematics is essential to student success.”

Ain’t that a refreshing concept?

After last night’s results and last month’s primary defeats, the Christian conservative faction of the State Board has now shrunk to five seats—having lost standard bearers Don McLeroy and Dunbar.

Five seats on a 15-seat board does not a power base make.

It’s true we don’t know much about some of the incoming members. But they’re clearly not part of the ideological-crusading faction that has so dominated the State Board in recent years.

After tiring debates over evolution and whether America is a Christian nation, and whether separation of church and state should remain in history class—we’ve earned a respite.

For at least two years, it seems, the State Board will take a break from fighting the Culture Wars and go back to simply debating sound education policy.