Grading on a Curve, or: How Old Do Those State Board of Education Candidates Think the Earth Is, Anyway? Let's Ask!

Well, who knew? The eyes of Texas have been focused on the GOP primary race between Governor Rick Perry and challenger Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as the ultimate throwdown between far right and somewhat-less-than far right Republicans. In the meantime, while we weren't looking, "moderates" may slip in the backdoor in Austin through the Texas State Board of Education.

Blame it on culture war battle fatigue.

As one sign of a potential power shift, two of the hard-line gang of seven religious-right conservatives on the 15-member panel -- Ken Mercer of San Antonio and Don McLeroy of Bryan -- face stiff opposition in the March 2 GOP primary. Tim Tuggey, a lawyer from Austin, is facing Mercer in District 5; Legislative consultant Thomas Ratliff from Mount Pleasant will square off against McLeroy in District 9.

Do these races -- and a handful of others -- spell a GOP shift for moderation on a once-little known board that has become a battleground over über-conservative issues like teaching creationism in Texas classrooms? Yes, says Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based watchdog group that keeps tabs on the board's right wing. (Somebody's gotta do it. Lord knows voters haven't paid the board much attention until recently.)

Of course "moderate," especially when applied to Republican office seekers, is a slippery term -- maybe "not radical" is more accurate.

"If you listen to what they say, they certainly sound a lot more moderate," Quinn says of the challengers. "I think they're conservative Republicans, but they're much more moderate in their approach to public education than the extremists on the board are. They don't see public education as a cultural war battle ground in which every issue becomes a fight between Christians and people who are supposedly left-wing radicals who hate Christians.

"The language we've seen them use throughout their campaigns has it made appear that they're going to be a lot more open to listening to what experts have to say about the best way to teach kids instead of political ideologues who are more interested in pushing an agenda. ... In the Republican Party today that's considerably more moderate."

Ratliff, whose District 9 race covers Kaufman County and part of northern Collin County, says labeling him a moderate or his opponent a right-winger is an oversimplification and beside the point.

"I think the state board isn't focused on education," Ratliff says. "They're too focused on politics regardless of what the politics is. I think they need return the focus on public schools and not who's the best Republican or who's conservative or moderate or liberal. I want to make it nonpartisan as possible rather than making it an ideological war ... an inter-party squabble if you will."

We pointed out that comment made him sound pretty ... well ... moderate. He laughed, but agreed.

"It does make me chuckle a little bit when people view this race as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party," Ratliff says. "These races are so obscure and so few people follow them, it's hard to imagine we're going to be a bellwether for any large chasm in the party. People are going to read into this whatever they will."

Uh-huh. And speaking of bellwethers, Mr. Ratliff, just how old do you think planet Earth is anyway?

Again, he laughs. "Millions and millions if not billions of years," he says. "I'm not an expert on carbon dating." But he does think the planet is significantly older than, say, 10,000 years, unlike his opponent.

But the real distinction Ratliff wants to make between himself and McLeroy -- whom we were unable to reach by phone -- is that Ratliff favors giving more flexibility and control to local school districts, rather dictate policies and curricula from above.

That perhaps explains why he -- and Tuggey, who also did not respond to a phone message -- have been endorsed by the Texas Parent PAC, a bipartisan group that favors more funding and enhanced local control over schools.

"We do think they will have a primary focus on schools and not get distracted by extraneous issues," says Carolyn Boyle, the group's chair.

We tried to wheedle out of her what she meant by "extraneous issues" -- creationism, abstinence only education, conservative social studies books? -- but she wasn't inclined to bite. "We aren't commenting on the incumbents in terms of the personal agendas," Boyle says.

Which is ironic, since personal political agendas have been the force driving controversy at this little corner of state government since the '90, when James Leininger, a San Antonio businessman, began putting serious money behind hard-core religious right candidates for the board. This election cycle, Leininger's money has yet to start rolling into the races, Quinn says.

"He's one of the reasons the board is so divided," Quinn says. "We don't know yet if he's going to come through at the last minute with money."

Leininger's absence seems strange, since it was his money that stirred the pot at the board, which got it media attention as the religious right pushed its agenda. That attention, in turn, has made this year's races among the most high-profile the board has seen and endangers the sway held by the rightists.

Maybe Leininger isn't willing to bet when it looks like his boys are facing a real horse race.

The primary challenges to McLeroy and Mercer aren't the only signs of a possible shift in board politics. Religious right-winger Cynthia Dunbar, who called public education a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion" and claimed an Obama administration would mean the end of America as "as we know her" isn't seeking re-election in District 10. There are three candidates seeking her seat, including Brian Russell, whom Quinn describes as "Cynthia Dunbar in pants," and Rebecca Osborne, endorsed by Texas Parent PAC.

In Dallas, where most friends of Unfair Park will be voting, the District 12 race is between GOP incumbent Geraldine "Tincy" Miller and educator George M. Clayton, who appears to be something of a mystery man according to several GOP folks we spoke with.

We've played phone tag with Clayton, but you can get some idea of where he stands here and by looking at the comments section of this Morning News item. (Sample quote from a comment posted by Clayton: "I have absolutely no objection to Creationism, Intelligent Design, and evolution being covered in public schools so long as they are covered simultaneously -- in a parallel lesson. All must be discussed objectively, without bias or prejudice. Evolution is yet still a 'theory.'" We're thinking that maybe that knocks him out of the moderate camp on science issues.)

Miller, an old-line conservative considered a moderate swing vote on some hot-button issues, didn't return a phone message, but then we didn't expect here to, because of this story. What does this little game of musical chairs add up to? This could be the election that decides exactly how much power religious ideologues hold over the board that shapes the education for 5 million public school students in Texas. Consider this: In recent months the board conducted two high-profile battles over the standards for social studies and science texts. In the next couple of years, if money allows, the board will actually be deciding which texts to approve.

"Whoever sits on the board will interpret those standards however they like," Quinn says. "The right wing faction will probably interpret those standards in a very political way...This [election] could be a watershed for the board."

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams