Doing right by students shouldn't be like pulling teeth

Doing right by students shouldn't be like pulling teeth
Opinion
Austin American-Statesman - EDITORIAL BOARD - Sun, July 22, 2007
The best we can say about Gov. Rick Perry's decision to appoint Don McLeroy as chairman of the State Board of Education is that the Bryan dentist was not the worst choice given the list of candidates on the board.

While we're not enthused about Perry's selection, McLeroy has an opportunity to demonstrate that he can rise above ideology to represent the broad interests of Texas' 4.5 million public school students. He should grab that opportunity and make the most of it.

McLeroy will fill a term that expires in 2009. He replaces Geraldine Miller of Dallas. Both are Republicans.

The 15-member elected board has been so dysfunctional in recent years that the Legislature wisely curbed much of its authority over Texas public schools. For more than a decade, the board has indulged in culture wars, and Texas schoolchildren have been the casualties.

Established by the Texas Constitution to oversee, among other things, the Permanent School Fund, the board still wields clout in decisions regarding the school fund and its investments, textbook selection for all school grades and curriculum standards for public schools. The board also is the state licensing entity for charter schools.

As chair, McLeroy leads a board of 10 Republicans and five Democrats. Divisions on the board aren't just partisan. McLeroy, a self-described social conservative, is one of eight Republicans who vote as a bloc on nearly all issues. He has a reputation for civility even while casting votes that are based more on ideology than on science or facts.

In 2001, McLeroy and a majority of the board rejected the only Advanced Placement textbook for high school environmental science because its views on global warming and other events didn't comport with the beliefs of the board majority. The book wasn't factual and was anti-American and anti-Christian, the majority claimed. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges and universities were using the textbook, including Baylor University, the nation's largest Baptist college.

In 2003, McLeroy voted against approving biology textbooks that included a full-scale scientific account of evolutionary theory. The books were approved.

McLeroy seems stranded in a Beaver Cleaver universe that is light years from the reality of today's schools. A majority of Texas public school students is minority, and they are largely from lower-income households. Many students don't speak English and are living in homes headed by single parents.

Schools today are tackling issues such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence and harassment of female and gay students. That's the environment in which students learn to live and work in a global economy.

McLeroy's votes and sentiments might well represent a majority of folks in his district. But Perry should press him to act broadly as chairman so that individual school districts can acquire the best textbooks, instruction and curricula for students. As a board member, McLeroy deserted a conservative principle of local control. Instead, he and other GOP board members have sought to consolidate power and force their ideological agenda on all school districts.

Those tactics continue to spawn public feuds over textbook selection and curriculum content. All of that has left the board more marginalized and has diminished its role in shaping public schools.

But the board still is capable of significant mischief.

McLeroy's elevation to chairman comes as the board begins a revision of science standards for public schools. That could prove embarrassing for Texas if McLeroy pushes for standards that push theology over science. If McLeroy wants to restore the board's credibility, he should promote standards and textbooks that educate, not preach.