There are eight open seats on the State Board of Education, and the state’s largest teacher and school board associations, as well as candidates, said they hope to see the new board focus on educational excellence rather than politics.
The 15-member board garnered national attention in the spring over its social studies curriculum revisions, which many teachers, curriculum experts, politicians and media outlets condemned as hyper-conservative. A “conservative bloc” of seven members led the charge on these changes, including an emphasis on the free enterprise system, American exceptionalism and exclusion of what some called key minority events and leaders.
Three of the most conservative board members will not be returning. Two were ousted in their March primaries, and Cynthia Dunbar, who represented District 10, which includes Austin, did not run for re-election.
“The main thing we’re looking for is a board that has more deference to and better understanding of educators and the education process,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Public Educators, the largest teacher association in the state. “It’s very hopeful that is the kind of board we’re going to get. This will be a very important two years.”
The incoming board will have the opportunity to make changes to standards established by the previous board and will also approve math and health standards, as well as supplementary science materials. In addition, the board oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund, a land grant that supports Texas public schools, as well as the state’s chartering program.
Many of those running this season have strong educational backgrounds, which Exter said gives teachers hope for a board more willing to listen to those on the “front lines” of education.
In District 10, Republican Marsha Farney has experience as a public elementary school teacher and as a middle and high school counselor, as well as a doctoral degree from UT in curriculum and instruction. Democrat Judy Jennings has worked for the Texas Education Agency, which runs the board, and currently works as a curriculum developer and adviser. She has a doctoral degree in educational psychology from UT.
Statewide, attention is focused on board candidates more than is usual for this race because of the controversy surrounding the board in the spring, said Dax Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards, which supports the 1,034 school boards in the state.
“A lot of people now realize what the SBOE does, and they’re paying attention,” Gonzalez said. “You’re always going to have conservatives and liberals on the board. What we’re hoping is that we have a stable board able to come up with curriculum standards, rules and regulations that are more comprehensive and in the interest of Texas students.”
Both District 10 candidates pledge to put education over politics in their work on the board and tout their experience in the educational field. Jennings said that in addition to carefully working on math and health standards, she hopes to review the social studies standards approved in the spring and make them more like the original version written by teachers.
“I’ll never be an available vote for an ideology,” Jennings said. “The moderate Republicans on the board have been swayed by that conservative bloc. My priority is to listen to what the teachers and experts say.”
Farney said that rather than vote with any faction, she will “align [herself] with the people of District 10.” She said she wants to emphasize careful instruction in elementary education around elements such as multiplication and fractions, which give students tools to succeed in high school algebra and eventually college math.
“One thing I can focus on, as someone who has experience in public schools, is making sure we don’t overload the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and put so many things on there that teachers aren’t able to be effective,” Farney said.