Religious right may gain sway over State Board of Education

Religious right may gain sway over State Board of Education
By R.A. DYER - Ft Worth Star-Telegram staff writer - 2/24/2008 - original
AUSTIN - Although little noticed by the public, the race for a local seat on the State Board of Education could lead to a dramatic ideological shift on the panel and -- by extension -- in Texas school policy.

That's the word from several board observers, who say a March 4 primary victory by challenger Barney Maddox over incumbent Pat Hardy for the Fort Worth-area District 11 seat would give social conservatives their first majority on the board.

According to some, that could mean changes in policies on sex education and the teaching of history.

"This one vote would give a majority to a faction that is determined to censor information for their own political and personal beliefs," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a group that opposes religious conservatives in government.

Maddox has not returned numerous phone calls from the Star-Telegram and did not provide information about his candidacy for the newspaper's recentvotersguide.

However, some of Maddox's views have emerged through his public testimony and published writings. In 2003, for instance, the Cleburne urologist testified against evolution at the State Board of Education with his characterization of Charles Darwin's theories as "pre-Civil War fairy tales." He urged board members at the meeting to reject new biology textbooks.

Maddox also questioned evolution in a 2006 letter to the Cleburne Times-Review and has had anti-evolution writings posted on the Web site of the Institute for Creation Research, a Dallas organization that attempts to find scientific evidence for the writings in the Bible. In published voters guides, Maddox has reported strong opposition to replacing abstinence-only education with more comprehensive sex education, strong opposition to providing school counseling or teaching about homosexuality, and strong support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools.

The 15-member elected state board reviews textbooks, debates school curriculum and sets education policy. Of the 10 Republicans on the board, seven are considered social or religious conservatives, including the chairman. The remaining five are Democrats.

Texas Freedom Network's Quinn said the social conservative faction has grown and shrunk over the years, but never has it been the board majority. That would change with a Maddox victory, Quinn said.

"That would put at risk everything from the teaching of evolution, to how publishers approach the study of American history," he said.

But Kelly Shackelford, president of the Free Market Foundation, which describes itself as an organization that promotes Judeo-Christian values, said the Texas Freedom Network was needlessly pushing the panic button.

He said that putting another strong conservative on the board would help build a firewall against "liberals who use schools to push their political propaganda." He said the board's conservatives typically protect against the insertion of potentially erroneous material into textbooks.

"Conservative means careful -- it means that you don't put things in textbooks unless they're accurate," he said.

For her part, incumbent Hardy predicts that the "far right" contingent would try to teach creationism in schools "in a New York second." The 59-year-old Weatherford school official also said conservative members have voted together on other issues, such as those concerning American history and world geography.

"There is a supreme being, and all this is all part of his divine plan -- that is my religious belief -- but how can you go into the classroom and teach that?" Hardy said. But in other regards, some of Hardy's positions don't seem so far removed from those she describes as members of the far right.

For instance, board Chairman Don McLeroy said he and other so-called social conservatives voted against biology textbooks a few years back not because they did not include a discussion of creationism or intelligent design, but because "they did not cover the weakness of the theory of evolution."

Similarly, Hardy said she does not oppose questioning the theory of evolution in the classroom -- and believes that such questioning should remain firmly rooted in science. "But I think you need to keep a clear line between what is religion and what is science," she said.

In voters guides, the state board's social conservative members have expressed opposition to the inclusion of contraceptive instruction in sex and AIDS education, and opposition to the regulation of private schools or home schools. Members of that faction also expressed support for dramatically reducing the Texas Education Agency's authority as well as support for displaying the Ten Commandments in schools.

But other Republicans and even Democrats sometimes have sided with them, said Will Lutz, editor of the weekly Lone Star Report political journal. Neither has the social conservative group voted as a monolithic bloc, he said.

So, like Shackelford, Lutz questions whether a new social conservative majority should be causing so much fuss.

"If the social conservatives get a majority on the board, it means that their agenda will move forward -- however, some of the scare tactics on the left are overboard," Lutz said. "For instance, the [social conservatives] are not thinking about taking evolution out of textbooks. We're going to have health textbooks, but they're going to emphasize abstinence."

He also said the social conservatives have fought against "fuzzy math" textbooks.

But Harvey Kronberg, an Austin-based political analyst, said a Maddox victory could prompt the new social conservative majority to overreach. If the members aggressively pursue their own agenda, they could end up alienating moderate voters, he said.

The result? Potentially a very short-lived majority, said Kronberg, who edits the online Quorum Report.

"It's one of those things where they need to be careful what they wish for -- they might get it all, and they might start delivering, and this might become the year that marks the high point and ending point of social conservative dominance on the board," Kronberg said.

District 11 covers about three-fourths of Tarrant County, plus all of Ellis, Johnson and Parker counties. There is no Democrat running for the position.