How Texans can change the State Board of Education

How Texans can change the State Board of Education
James Kallison, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT ARLINGTON - Austin American Statesman - 12/16/2008 - original
In recent editorials, the American-Statesman has condemned quite appropriately the views of State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar.

Dunbar has stated that the United States would be the target of a terrorist attack "by those with whom (President-elect Barack) Obama truly sympathizes to take down 'America'" Dunbar, an evangelical Christian, also has written that public education is a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion" in which "we are throwing them (children) into the enemy's fire"

These comments among others Dunbar has made transcend the usual conservative/liberal continuum and place her at the very edge of political extremism. Unfortunately, Dunbar is not the only board member whose views are well beyond the mainstream.

Though there are certainly able board members from both parties who exercise good and rational judgments, the members on the extreme right have enough influence to affect curricular policies that could have grave consequences to students, teachers and the state.

The statutory responsibilities of the 15-member elected board include establishing curriculum and graduation requirements, approving charter schools and adopting textbooks. The board will soon determine statewide curriculum standards for science education. It is disturbing to see that Dunbar and her coalition on the board appointed three creationists to the six-member task force charged with examining these standards. Should the anti-evolution members of the board succeed in eroding the integrity of science education in the state, the ramifications will go well beyond our children receiving a substandard education. As Texas tries to lure businesses to the state, some companies will, no doubt, hesitate to relocate where there is a state-driven anti-intellectual public school system. Our universities could also suffer from this damaging reputation.

The critical question we must answer is how to change the tate Board of Education. Of course, constituents can (and should) voice their opposition to the policies advanced by the ultra-right board members. However, these members are too committed to their agenda to let public opinion get in their way.

We must, therefore remove the extremists from the board as they come up for re-election. The problem is that state board elections go unnoticed by the vast majority of the populace. State board elections are often described as "obscure," "down-ballot" or "little-known." It is precisely this obscurity that allows a tight and well-organized group on the extreme right to generate enough votes to win elections. They do this openly and fairly. But with so much at stake, Texans can no longer ignore these critical elections. We must take the responsibility to learn about candidates' positions and vote for those who reflect our educational viewpoints. And the media must make the elections much more prominent and enhance the visibility of the candidates.

Perhaps the best solution is for the Legislature to change the governance structure of K-12 education. Currently, the State Board of Education is elected while the head of the Texas Education Agency (the commissioner of education) is appointed by the governor. The commissioner would ordinarily serve as head of the state board; however, he or she is accountable to and serves at the pleasure of the governor. Complicating the structure even more, the state has a separate education board the State Board for Educator Certification, appointed by the governor whose oversight is limited to teacher certification and standards of educator conduct. The relationships between the boards and the commissioner are inherently awkward, and the overall structure fosters dysfunction and must be fixed. Lawmakers should change the system and consider legislation that would mirror the state model for higher education in which we have an appointed board (the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board) that hires the commissioner of higher education.

But until the governance structure of public education oversight is changed, we must change the membership of the State Board of Education by voting out the extremist board members who are corrupting public education in our state. We deserve better than what we have. Our teachers deserve better, and most importantly, our children deserve better.

Kallison, who lives in Austin, is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at UT-Arlington. He has served as an acting deputy assistant commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.