A race for a seat on the State Board of Education representing Northeast Texas is getting an unusual amount of attention.
A controversial candidate’s Facebook posts have left many across the country concerned about the influence Texas has over education beyond its borders. But changing policy both in the state and outside of it have made Texas less influential than it used to be.
Mary Lou Bruner says it’s time to get back to the basics in school education.
“We stopped teaching the basics and we stopped being the great nation that we were,” Bruner says. “We’re losing respect in the world.”
The state standards for Texas public schools she says, are a mile wide and an inch deep. On that, the retired teacher and her opponent Keven Ellis, agree. Ellis is the president of the Lufkin school board.
Where Ellis thinks Bruner is way off base is in most of the rest of her opinions.
Bruner has generated headlines nationwide for controversial Facebook posts she’s made through the years. In one, she said President Obama prostituted himself to pay for drugs. In another she says democrats assassinated President Kennedy. And she claims the United Nations has a plan to reduce the world’s population by two-thirds. She’s labeled Islam an “inhumane, totalitarian ideology,” and called climate change a Marxist hoax.
Ellis says the state board is not there to referee ideological disputes.
“I think it’s the state board of education’s job to make sure the reviewers are qualified, that they come from a broad spectrum of experiences and that the board listens to that and not get personal political agendas involved,” Ellis says.
Much of the national coverage of this race has focused on Bruner’s controversial comments, and on the idea that the Texas board of education wields influence beyond the state’s borders. The Lone Star State has been framed as the 800-pound gorilla in American education.
“Once upon a time that was the case,” says David Anderson, a veteran of the textbook industry and a former curriculum director at the Texas Education Agency.
Anderson says it used to be that the sheer volume of students in Texas made it so that textbook companies would work hard to get their books approved here. A green light from the education board put a textbook on a short list of options, and companies would then try to sell those books to other states. So kids in the Midwest would often end up with materials approved by the Texas Board of Education.
“I would argue that at least for the past 15 years,” Anderson says, “that scenario really has not existed as it did for the 40 years prior to that.”
Anderson says Texas public schools aren’t limited to a pre-approved list of textbooks. Now, districts are given standards and can decide which materials to buy. And, he says, schools just buy don’t as many books as they used to. “So the buying power of Texas, while still good in terms of pure numbers and the size of the market, changed tremendously because now there were more players in the market,” Anderson says.
Then there’s another reason Texas’ influence in education has diminished: Common Core. More than 40 states have adopted the English and math standards developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Texas is not one of them.
“Publishers are going to align their national programs to those standards because the market is so large,” Anderson says.
Inside Texas though, the State Board of Education wields considerable influence. The fifteen-member education board is charged with setting standards for what students are supposed know at each grade level. In the past, fights over things like evolution and the way schools teach the civil war made the board a culture wars battleground. In recent years there’s been less acrimony.
“I think the board is in the healthiest place it’s been in a decade,” says vice chair Thomas Ratliff, a moderate Republican who’s retiring from his seat representing Northeast Texas.
Ratliff says he’s worried that if Mary Lou Bruner is elected to the position, she’d act as an ideologue.
“I think she will add a similar level of embarrassment and distraction like we had several years ago that will generate all kinds of great headlines across the country,”
Ratliff says. “But it will once again tell everybody that Texas is like a whole other country and not in a good way.”
But Bruner supporter Tammy Blair says you can’t spend 36 years working in public schools without learning how to compromise. Still, Blair says Bruner is a fighter, especially for the issues that matter to her, and that’s appealing to a lot of people in her district.
“Mary Lou is like a lot of concerned Texans at this point that are saying wait, we need to slow down and we need to look at what we’re doing and what are we trying to accomplish,” Blair says.
Blair is the incoming chairman of the Cherokee County Republican Party in East Texas, and she says she wishes people paid more attention to down-ballot races like this one, where one vote wields far more influence on the outcome than it does for state or national offices.
“Most people have no idea who we are, what we do or how it relates to them or why they should care,” says board member Thomas Ratliff. “And so it does yield itself to very low turnout and even lower informed turnout.”
Even though this State Board of Education race is getting much more attention than usual, he says, it’s not clear if the national buzz will overwhelm the polls with voters on election day on May 24.
This story was reported in collaboration with the Us and Them podcast – telling stories about the fault lines that separate Americans. You can check out the first part of our story on Mary Lou Bruner here.