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.


Patrick Michels

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.”