Marsha Farney

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

When liberal arts sophomore Madi Maino, originally from Virginia, prepared to move to Texas for college, her image of the state boiled down to one thing: a cowboy wearing boots and a hat.  

“When I came down here, I remember driving and seeing cowboys working on the side of the road — working on fences or something,” Maino said. “They were wearing stereotypical boots, jeans, a big belt buckle and a cowboy hat.”

The House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee heard a resolution Tuesday that, if passed, would further confirm Maino’s initial impression. Several representatives, led by author Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), proposed a resolution that would make the cowboy hat Texas’s official headgear. The bill was left pending in committee.

Farney, who did not attend the hearing, wrote in the resolution that the cowboy hat is a “stylish” representation of Texas’ history, worthy of its own recognition by the 84th legislature.

“The cowboy hat is recognized all over the world as a symbol of the Texas Western heritage,” said Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), who spoke on Farney’s behalf. “It’s very distinctive when you wear that hat anywhere in the world. People ask the question, whether you’re from Colorado or Texas — ‘Are you
a cowboy?’”

Texas currently has more than 50 official state symbols — chili is the state dish, the Texas Toad is the state amphibian and the state’s official epic poem is “The Legend of Old Stone Ranch.” 

The modern cowboy hat’s origins date back to the 19th century, when a Philadelphia hat maker, John Stetson, made an exaggerated version of popular hats such as fedoras and bowler hats, according to Jeannette Vaught, a Ph.D. candidate who researches the history of cowboys and rodeos in the state.

The hats became a status symbol because of their high price tags. As the hat grew in popularity, different styles emerged across the nation. Vaught said the hat is part of Western culture as a whole but is especially associated with Texas because of ranching’s prominence in the state.

“Obviously people all over the country … wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats and wear Western clothing. … For Texas to make claim to any part of these Western wardrobes is really an artificial designation of it as Texas’,” Vaught said. 

While most students won’t see an abundance of cowboy hats when they walk across campus, they are prominent at football games, and particularly for student organizations such as the Texas Cowboys.

Business senior Jaan Bains, Texas Cowboy’s vice president, said the Texas Cowboys wear cowboy hats and other western gear to honor Texas history. Bains said he supports the House’s legislation.

“We really respect the tradition of not only cowboys but also the tradition of the University and the tradition of the state,” Bains said. “So what we wear is — we wear a hat, we wear chaps, we wear a neckerchief, which is all symbolic and relevant of what cowboys wore years ago in Texas.”

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.”

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.