Some of Texas’ most politically polarizing elections don’t take winners to Washington, D.C., but to Austin where a 15-member education board decides what 5.39 million public students learn.
The political races for State Board of Education are described as “sleepy” contests that sit lower on Election Day ballots and don’t draw media attention. Candidates rarely raise the millions in political contributions that grab national interest. In fact, stretching several thousand dollars and hand-shaking at candidate forums is the norm.
“I think they suffer the same problem as all races in public education,” said Troy Reynolds, founder of Texans for Public Education (T4PE), a group that supports public education and teachers. “When it comes to education, people’s eyes start to glaze over a little bit.”
But education advocates said more voters need to pay attention. These board members decide Texas curriculum and textbooks. Their actions get national attention — as was the case weeks ago when they discussed lessons on the Alamo and whether historical figure Helen Keller should be struck from third grade lessons on citizenship.
“In general this is kind of the sleepy corner of the ballot,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a public education and religious liberties watch group. “Who sits on this board decides what kids are going to learn for a generation.”
There are seven seats up for election on the board. Tarrant County voters will help decide two contests — District 11 and 13. Each board member represents 1.8 million people.
District 11 includes all of Parker County and portions of Tarrant and Dallas County. It includes Benbrook, Southlake, Keller and Fort Worth’s affluent Tanglewood neighborhood.
In District 13, educators Aicha Davis and Alissa Russell are seeking a seat that represents students in an area that includes Dallas County, Arlington, Grand Prairie, east Fort Worth and portions of Birdville and Crowley school districts. Russell could not be reached for comment.
Even though the public seems focused on the Texas Senate race between Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Beto O’Rourke, Hardy, Morton and Davis said they make a campaign pitch for themselves whenever they can.
Hardy, 69, is relying on name recognition and her reputation as moderate to help keep her title. She is one of 10 Republicans on the board. Meanwhile, Democrats Morton and Davis are trying to get momentum from Texas’ so-called blue wave.
“Every candidate talks about how important education is, but the State Board of Education race has gotten very little attention,” said Davis, an educator and senior research assistant at the University of North Texas who is seeking the District 13 seat as a Democrat.
The Helen Keller effect
The board’s primary duties include setting curriculum standards and approving textbooks.
That sounds mundane to some, but taking care of those tasks has been contentious. Critics said some members have embarrassed Texas in the past.
Quinn said some board members put “politics over the education of kids.”
The board drew national attention in 2009 when it discussed how evolution is taught in high school biology. Later, it drew more attention with talk about history in government lessons. In time, the board’s makeup changed, but its ability to draw national headlines didn’t.
In September, the board’s move to streamline curriculum drew national criticism (and in some cases laughs) because they struck Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from it.
Norma Crosby, president of National Federation of the Blind of Texas, said the group reached out to the board to rethink Keller’s place in the curriculum.
“There are really very few role models in the education process for young people who have disability,” Crosby said, adding that it is important for non-disabled people to learn about Keller.
Hardy said their effort to trim the curriculum was more nuanced than headlines indicated.
“The media doesn’t know what it is talking about,” Hardy said. “Nobody bothered to call and ask, ‘How did that happen?’”
Hardy said with regard to Helen Keller, the board relied on teacher groups to recommend what to trim. The issue was whether Keller best represented the characteristics of good citizenship by historical and contemporary figures. Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, and Ruby Bridges, a civil rights activist, were deemed examples for that lesson, Hardy said.
The board’s action, which awaits final approval in November, doesn’t mean that students won’t learn about Keller, Hardy said, adding: “It might come back again.”
Morton said that while she appreciates streamlining the curriculum, students don’t get to learn enough about people with disabilities.
“It’s disappointing that she was removed,” said Morton, 45, a self-described pro-science candidate.
Inside District 11
Hardy, who lives in west Fort Worth, said education is not really “a Democrat or Republican thing,” but is about children.
Through the board’s controversies, Hardy earned a reputation for being a moderate conservative. She supports school choice, but not vouchers because she said she doesn’t believe state money should pay for private schooling — especially without having the same state accountability.
“I have done a good job representing my district,” Hardy said, explaining that she has strong support among educators. “People know me.”
Hardy was endorsed by The Dallas Morning News. The education advocacy group, Texans for Public Education, will “block vote” in support of Hardy. The latter’s estimated 27,000 members statewide vote as a block in state elections after reviewing candidates’ positions on public education.
Hardy has taken her message to local events such as an NAACP forum in Weatherford. A campaign finance report filed on Oct. 9, indicates she had $2,124.63 cash on hand for the reporting period ending on Sept. 27. Her largest donation was for $500 from the Republican Women for Arlington Political Action Committee.
But Hardy was outraised by Morton between July and September.
Hardy raised $950 while Morton raised $5,966.23. Morton had $4,631.86 cash on hand at the end of the reporting period. Her largest contribution was an in-kind contribution of $1,500 for access to a voter database.
Morton said how science is taught and how dyslexia is handled by Texas schools are among reasons she decided to run. She was also motivated by grassroots energy in a progressive movement that some hope will carry a blue wave.
Morton said she has been campaigning with Davis, the Democrat running in District 13. They recently attended a League of United Latin American Citizens event. Morton said she is trying to build on the energy emerging in the Democratic Party.
“I try to hit the Beto events,” she said. “He is drawing a lot of people who have not been politically active.”
Morton, who was endorsed by the Texas Freedom Network, said she supports learning that develops critical thinking and an appreciation for “the value of diversity.”
“Alternative facts are not facts. Science is real and it doesn’t go away just because you don’t like what it says,” Morton said, adding that her race is the most important one.
“This is about the long game,” she said.