The State Board of Education has long been considered one of the biggest political lightning rods in Texas, at the heart of debates over everything from evolution to the role of Mexican-American heroes in textbooks.
But when it comes to picking members for the board, many Texas voters tune out.
“The State Board of Education is one of the most overlooked elected agencies in Texas,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Very few persons have even heard of the State Board of Education.”
That’s the case even though the board “plays a pivotal role in determining what students in Texas learn, which textbooks they read, and the metrics used to evaluate them,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
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And that’s the case even though the board’s most important duty is to manage the state’s Permanent School Fund, which reached a record value this year — nearly $38 million — making it the country’s largest educational endowment.
On Nov. 4, North Texas voters will settle two local bids for unpaid four-year terms on the 15-member board:
• In District 11, incumbent Republican Patricia “Pat” Hardy of Fort Worth squares off against Democrat Nancy Bean and Libertarian Craig Sanders.
• In District 13, Democrat Erika Beltran and Libertarian Junart Sodoy are vying to replace the retiring Mavis Best Knight.
Hanging in the balance is the partisan makeup of the board. It’s now about one-third Democratic and two-thirds Republican, with Republicans split between centrist conservatives and movement conservatives, Jones said.
“The outcome of these two races will [determine] the ideological status quo on the SBOE,” he said.
Hardy, the 12-year incumbent, faces two challengers — Bean, the first Democrat to run for this post since 1996, and Sanders, the Libertarian.
Hardy said she offers Texans years of experience on the board and in the educational arena.
“I first ran for the board because I wanted to make a difference in education,” she said. “I believe I have, but there are several things I want to see put in order.”
That includes helping to update standards for English and language arts and for social studies in the coming years and working with the Legislature to make educational improvements, including refining last year’s House Bill 5, a measure intended to better high school curriculum.
Hardy, an instructional specialist in Weatherford who spent more than three decades teaching history and geography in the Castleberry school district, has been praised for helping manage the success of the Permanent School Fund.
She believes this race will boil down to partisan preference.
“I think I would hands down do a better job because I have more experience and I know what I’m doing,” she said. “But it’s a Democrat/Republican thing.”
Bean, an educator and counselor in the Arlington school district who is making her first bid for public office, said she believes she is the best candidate in this race.
“I’m tired of the Texas State Board of Education being an embarrassment to us in the national media — providing laugh lines for jokes,” she said. “Public education is the foundation for democracy and it is under attack right now in Texas and in the nation.”
Bean said she has 20 years of experience in education and has worked in vulnerable, diverse communities. She disagrees with proposals to remove some Latino heroes, such as Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, from the curriculum.
She would like the committee reviewing curriculum standards to be made up of credentialed professionals — and she wants to see current standards rigorously applied to charter schools.
If elected, she said, she would use her position to tout respect for public education and educators and would work to “remove the burden of the standardized high-stakes assessment which is robbing the classrooms of teaching and a love of learning.”
Meanwhile, Sanders, a 51-year-old computer consultant in Arlington, said he wants to bring his personal values to the public post.
Sanders, who home-schools his children, said he knows that it’s hard to make the one-size-fits-all model apply to all students.
“I know what it’s like to educate one-on-one and adjust to the student’s needs,” he said. “That has exposed the fallacy of having a common education model for 7 million kids. It’s impossible. It’s doomed to failure.”
He said he would like to end Common Core practices in Texas, give control of education back to teachers and parents, and be frugal with state funding.
“I’m really an advocate for the teachers,” he said. “I want to pay them more and expect more out of them.
“Teachers know how to design curriculum. They want to do that,” he said. “And they know what curriculum fits their kids best.”
District 11 includes west and southwest Fort Worth, suburban Tarrant County, all of Parker County and the northwest corner of Dallas County.
In the race to replace the retiring Knight, Beltran, 35, faces Sodoy, who does not appear to be campaigning.
Beltran, a former teacher who grew up in Fort Worth’s Diamond Hill neighborhood, is now Leadership for Educational Equity’s regional director for Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.
She said she’s a product of the Fort Worth school district who went on to work in Washington, D.C., for five years tracking legislation and working in behalf of low-income children and families at the federal level.
“I want to serve my community,” she said. “I believe students and families … deserve access to a high quality of education.
“I can be a strong voice for students in District 13.”
This is her first bid for public office.
Sodoy did not respond to requests for information from the Star-Telegram.
District 13 stretches from the Fort Worth Stockyards through much of Dallas County and includes east Arlington.