Moderates, two Democrats elected to education board

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The influence of the State Board of Education’s conservative bloc, which has dominated the board’s politics for two years, may have taken a hit Tuesday night, after a group of six more moderate Republicans and two Democrats were elected to the 15-member board.

Republican Marsha Farney won her bid for District 10, which includes most of Central Texas, against Democrat Judy Jennings, 55 to 40 percent. Libertarian candidate Jessica Dreesen garnered about 4 percent of the vote.

The board’s focus should shift from politics to the students’ best interest by focusing on evidence-based research instead of ideology, Farney said.

“Practical experience in the field of education will add a valuable voice and perspective,” said Farney, a former elementary school teacher and middle and high school counselor. “Having the input of someone with my background and experience will strengthen the board.”

She said she has already started compiling a list of people who she considers experts in curriculum and instruction, drawing from the 16 counties in her district. Her plans include narrowing the achievement gap in math classes for minorities and females, she said.

“The decisions made by the State Board of Education should not be based on ideology, but on the best interest of our children,” she said. “Politics should not be a part of the discussion, and it never has been for me. It’s always been about making Texas public schools the best they can be.”

Democratic challenger Jennings could not be reached for comment.

The board’s recent debates about global warming, evolution and history text book revisions drew negative attention to Texas and its education system, said Ryan Valentine, deputy director of the Texas Freedom Network, a progressive grassroots organization.

“We’ve just come off two very contentious curriculum debates in science,” he said. “They brought international scorn and derision to Texas, so a heightened attention has been brought to the board and this election.”

Since 2007, Cynthia Dunbar, a Republican from Richmond, has represented District 10. She championed the social conservative bloc’s proposed social studies textbook revisions, which included sidelining Thomas Jefferson and the state’s prominent role in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Dunbar announced in December that she was not seeking re-election for a second term.

The Texas Association of School Boards, a nonprofit group representing Texas school districts, worked this election cycle to educate voters on the board’s mission and importance, said Dominic Giarratani, the group’s assistant director.

“Regardless of who sits [on the board], we have to work with them on a daily basis,” Giarratani said. “It’s an important election and we hope the new board members be open to collaboration.”