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Cynthia Dunbar

SBOE rejects that lousy Mexican-American studies textbook

Nice.

The State Board of Education voted 14-0 Wednesday to deny the adoption of a Mexican-American studies textbook decried by opponents as racist and inaccurate.

The textbook, titled “Mexican American Heritage,” was the only submission the board received when it made a 2015 call for textbooks for high school social studies classes, including Mexican-American studies.

But critics say the book is riddled with factual, “interpretive” and “omission” errors and doesn’t meet basic standards for use in classrooms.

Wednesday’s vote wasn’t the last step, as the board will take a final vote Friday. The only board member not present for the vote was David Bradley. In emails obtained through a state open records request by Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning advocacy group, the Beaumont Republican had written that a “lack of quorum on [the book] would be nice. Deny the Hispanics a record vote. The book still fails.”

With as much dignity and gravity as I can muster, I say “Neener neener” to you, David Bradley. It’s what you deserve.

The Chron reports on the hearing at which opponents of the textbook far outnumbered its supporters.

State education board members on Tuesday grilled the publisher of a controversial Mexican-American studies textbook about alleged errors, all but promising to reject the proposed book later this week.

Members of the State Board of Education are poised to vote Friday on whether to adopt “Mexican American Heritage,” a textbook that university professors and historical experts argue is riddled with errors, cherry-picks sources and claims immigrants have radical ideas that pose a cultural and political threat to American society.

“This book offers one thing. It offers hatred. It offers hate toward Mexican-Americans,” said Ruben Cortez Jr., a member from Brownsville.

Board members from both parties spent nearly two hours of a public hearing peppering Momentum Instruction CEO and owner Cynthia Dunbar about reported errors in the proposed textbook.

“You have submitted a textbook that will be rejected” from landing on the state’s preferred textbook list, said board member Erika Beltran, D-Fort Worth, who criticized Dunbar for failing to recall the credentials of the book’s authors. “We’re not just talking about a textbook on Mexican-American heritage, we’re talking about the education of 5 million kids.”

[…]

Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who said in September the book was “dead on arrival,” stressed the board needs to focus on the errors that Dunbar has refused to fix.

“I’m not a scientist, but I know enough to know that communism does not cause natural disasters,” said Ratliff, referring to a passage in the textbook that links the two. Dunbar said the passage was “not a verified factual error,” then later agreed to change the sentence.

Emilio Zamora, a University of Texas at Austin professor who reviewed the text, accused the authors and publisher of arrogance by refusing to acknowledge the problems.

“Not once do they agree with any of our findings of error – not once,” said Zamora, shaking his fist behind a podium before the state board. He and a team of professors reported finding 407 errors in the book’s latest version.

See here and here for some background, and here for the report on how crappy this textbook was that SBOE member Ruben Cortez’s ad hoc committee put together. This issue won’t go away for long. The SBOE will put out another call for a hopefully non-crappy textbook, so there should be more submissions in the future. And just to make this all the more fun, to-be-rejected publisher Dunbar is threatening a lawsuit if she gets rejected, because by God you just don’t do that in Donald Trump’s America. Or something like that. The Trib, the Observer, the Current, the Texas Freedom Network, the DMN, and the Austin Chronicle have more.

Publisher of crappy Mexican American Studies textbook defends said textbook

It’s not that crappy, she swears.

The publisher of a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook that scholars, elected officials and Hispanic activists have decried as racist and inaccurate is defending the high school text ahead of a public hearing on the book Tuesday before the Texas State Board of Education.

“There’s never been a book in the history of SBOE that’s been attacked so prematurely in the process,” said Cynthia Dunbar, a former right-wing Republican member of the education board who now heads the educational curriculum company that produced the textbook.

The text, titled Mexican American Heritage and published by Momentum Instruction, was the only submission the board received after it issued a call in 2015 for textbooks to be used in Mexican-American studies classes at the high school level. The powerful 15-member panel sets statewide curriculum and approves textbooks.

[…]

Dunbar, who had not previously responded to interview requests, told The Texas Tribune on Monday that criticisms have been overblown and that most of them are based on a draft copy that her company has since revised. Changes include corrections of at least a few factual errors — one identified by an SBOE-appointed review board — and other tweaks in response to public feedback. The passage that implied that Mexican-American laborers are lazy has been “clarified,” Dunbar said, while contending that critics took that particular bit out of context.

“It exposed a racial bias stereotyped against them,” she said, noting that the review board found that the book totally met state curriculum standards.

“The point is there’s no hidden agenda here,” she added.

See here and here for some background. It’s nice that Dunbar says the book has undergone revisions and fixed some errors since it first appeared, but Dunbar has a long history of saying and doing ugly things, so her credibility isn’t very high. I’ll wait to hear from someone more trustworthy before I believe there’s any merit to her publication. In the meantime, the advice of rejecting this book and (one hopes) getting other groups to write them remains sound. See this open letter from SBOE member Marisa Perez for more.

The good news is that there doesn’t appear to be any support for adopting this textbook.

Hundreds of Hispanic advocates, activists, students and elected officials from across the state on Tuesday called on the Texas Board of Education to reject a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook they blasted as blatantly racist and which many scholars have deemed historically inaccurate.

The 15-member education board took public input on the text during an hours-long public hearing at which some of the panel’s Republican members criticized the Legislature for diminishing the education board’s power to vet textbooks.

The panel will vote to accept or reject the text in November, when it will hold a second public hearing.

[…]

Ruben Cortez Jr., D-Brownsville, who was so concerned about the text that he convened an ad-hoc committee of scholars and educators to review it, said he believes a supermajority of his colleagues will vote to reject it. (A report his committee unveiled last week found that the text is littered with errors.) Meanwhile, Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, described the text Tuesday as “dead on arrival” and board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said he has “real concerns” about it.

Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, kicked off the public hearing with a heartfelt message dedicated to “Mexican-American colleagues, friends and neighbors,” assuring them that the board is committed to approving accurate instructional materials that adequately reflect their major role in U.S. society.

“Your story is part of the American story,” she said. “Everyone deserves to have their story told in a fair and accurate manner.”

Several Republican board members criticized Texas legislators on Tuesday for passing laws over the years that have diminished the panel’s authority to decide what textbooks local school districts use. And they warned that their weakened oversight could mean the proliferation of even more controversial instructional material.

They pointed specifically to legislation approved in 2011 that allowed school districts to choose textbooks that haven’t been approved by the board as long as they can show their instructional materials cover state curriculum standards. (Senate Bill 6, passed in the wake of a raucous, high-profile debate over social studies curriculum in which members of the board’s since-diminished social conservative block — including Dunbar — grabbed national headlines for their extreme comments.)

David Bradley, R-Beaumont, and other board members complained repeatedly Tuesday that the law allows for publishers to peddle problematic textbooks directly to school districts. He and former board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, asked Democratic Hispanic lawmakers who addressed the board if they’d be willing to reconsider those parameters.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, acknowledged that “legislation has a history of unintended consequences and this very well may be a case.”The Senate Education Committee is “looking at everything including this issue you’re bringing up,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who is a member of that panel, told the board.

But Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was not to “re-litigate” old legislation but discuss whether the text should be allowed in Texas classrooms.

“Not only does this book not belong in the classroom, it doesn’t deserve the attention it’s getting now,” he said.

I agree, but at least all the attention has accomplished one thing, and that’s the real need for a much better textbook. Let’s hope the next time around we get more than one possible candidates for that.

In which we find another way to suck at textbooks

Oh, good Lord.

If the State Board of Education approves a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook this fall, Texas students could learn that the Aztecs waged war because of “bloodlust,” 19th-century Mexican industrial laborers often drank on the job and slavery was in swift decline just before the Civil War, scholars and activists said at a press conference Monday.

Activist groups and professors with the Responsible Ethnic Studies Textbook Coalition gathered Monday at the Texas Education Agency to list their concerns with the book, “Mexican American Heritage,” and call on the board to reject it.

“Excessive errors render the proposed textbook useless and even counterproductive,” said Emilio Zamora, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin who reviewed the textbook at the request of board member Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville.

The text was the only submission the board received after it issued a call in 2015 for textbooks to be used in Mexican-American studies classes at the high school level. Roughly 10 high schools in Texas currently offer Mexican-American studies; the content of the course varies from school to school, but is often interdisciplinary and includes history, literature and current events. Activists had hoped that a state-approved textbook would make it easier for teachers to start offering the class.

At the press conference, Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, noted that the publisher of “Mexican American Heritage,” Momentum Instruction, LLC, has never published a textbook before, and one of the text’s contributors is Cynthia Dunbar, a conservative former board member.

[…]

At the press conference, Zamora said he found an average of five to seven errors on each page he reviewed. He said the text focuses more on general American and world history than on the experiences of Mexican-Americans, characterizes Mexican-American social justice leaders as a threat to the United States and doesn’t cite professional scholarship in the interdisciplinary field of Mexican-American Studies.

Christopher Carmona, chairman of the Committee on Mexican American Studies in Pre-K-12 at Tejas Foco, the state branch of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, said the flawed textbook reflects a broader problem in Texas: the relative paucity of Mexican-American studies courses in public schools where over half of the student body is Hispanic. Currently, about 10 high schools have established such courses through the state’s elective course “Special Topics in Social Studies,” which allows schools to develop their own classes, including ethnic studies.

“The textbook is a symptom of the fact that we don’t have this in place,” said Carmona, who is also an instructor of English at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

The call for textbooks was issued as a compromise when the board debated ethnic studies in 2014. Cortez initially proposed establishing a full-fledged Mexican-American studies course. Instead, the board voted 11-3 to ask publishers to submit textbooks that teachers could use for courses in various ethnic studies classes.

First, let’s be clear that any endeavor involving Cynthia Dunbar is going to be a miasma of toxic wingnuttery. The existence of this textbook has been known for a couple of months, and the SBOE has yet to take up the matter of whether it will be adopted or tossed onto the trash pile where it belongs. (This is the SBOE we’re talking about, so you can probably guess what the likely outcome is.) I – haven’t followed this closely so I can’t tell you a whole lot more about this; go read that Observer link for the basics, and go here if you want to get involved. It sure would be nice if we could avoid embarrassing ourselves again, wouldn’t it? ThinkProgress, the Observer, and the Press have more.

Endorsement watch: Beware the really bad candidates

Gloria Padilla in the Express News has some good advice.

Voting is not as easy as it used to be when communities were smaller and everyone knew the candidates. Smart voters need to do their homework and research their candidates. The uninformed choices made at the ballot box could have adverse consequences for generations to come.

I especially urge voters to research the State Board of Education candidates before casting a ballot.

There are two seats up in the Bexar County area.

In District 5, Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau of Austin is facing incumbent Ken Mercer, a former state representative from San Antonio.

Mercer is a member of a dysfunctional majority on the state education board that is making Texas the laughingstock of the nation. He has used his position on the state board to promote his personal beliefs and force them into to the curriculum. That is not the role of a state board of education member.

Bell-Metereau is a Fulbright scholar and professor at Texas State University in San Marcos.

There is no incumbent in the District 3 race. Democrat Rick Agosto, who held the seat for the last four years, chose not to seek a second term.

Voters in this race have a choice between another well-respected university professor and a man prone to non-responsive answers to most questions.

Anyone who has ever met the two candidates knows there is only one qualified candidate in this race. Republican Tony Cunningham, the Republican candidate, has no clue what the job is about and will talk about the Constitution and job creation when asked about education.

His opponent, Democrat Michael Soto, grew up in Brownsville and was educated at Harvard. He has a son enrolled in the San Antonio Independent School District. He knows public education.

We may never have another election in which this much attention has been paid to SBOE races. Hopefully, we will also never have another election in which the likes of Cynthia Dunbar can get elected without opposition because no one pays attention to SBOE races. Whatever happens in the actual races, a lot more people understand that races like these are as important as the ones they’re used to hearing about and paying attention to, and that’s a good thing.

Beware the false moderates

Marsha Farney, the Republican running to succeed super wingnut Cynthia Dunbar in SBOE 10, was considered the more moderate candidate in the GOP primary runoff for that nomination. When compared to Dunbar, or to her hand-picked successor, Brian Russell, Farney clearly came across as the more sensible and less crazy choice. But as Martha keeps reminding us, that doesn’t actually make her a moderate. Let’s face it, being less crazy than Cynthia Dunbar isn’t a high bar to clear. The thing to remember is that there really is a sensible, moderate candidate running in SBOE 10, Democrat Judy Jennings. We have a chance to substantially improve the SBOE. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

The clown show finally calls it a wrap

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for some other state to be the national laughingstock again. The Court of Criminal Appeals gives it a good run for its money, but you just can’t out-embarrass the SBOE, and every time they meet it gets worse. All I can say is thank goodness that two of the worst of these clowns will never hold public office again.

Anyway, here’s your wrapup from the Day Two festivities, which carried over a few minutes past midnight and into Day Three, from the Trib, TFN, and Abby Rapoport. And here’s your Day Three liveblogging and other reports, from TFN, the Trib, TFN again, the Trib again, Abby Rapoport, and Steven Schafersman. Mainstream media coverage is here, here, and here. Burka and Stace also weigh in, and of course Martha was working it on Twitter. May those who had to endure all this get a nice long vacation to recover their sanity.

Most of the heavy lifting came during Thursday’s marathon session. Friday was about finishing touches and final votes. The highlight was the restoration of Thomas Jefferson to the world history curriculum, reversing a decision that has drawn the most derision from pretty much everywhere on the planet. That’s good for TJ, but not so much for his fellow Enlightenment figure James Madison, who didn’t make the cut. The lowlight, if you have to pick just one, was the Board’s ratification of the idea that there is no “separation of church and state”. As noted by the Trib:

[M]embers this afternoon passed an amendment to the state’s socials studies standards calling for students to “contrast” the intent of the nation’s founders with the notion of separation of church and state.

It reads: “Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and compare and contrast this to the phrase, ‘separation of church and state.’”

The motion came from Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, a moderate Republican who worked on the language with arch-conservative former chair Don McLeroy, R-Bryan. With the exception of the adding the word “compare” along with “contrast” and including some verbiage directly from the First Amendment, what the board passed mirrored what McLeroy had originally proposed.

I have several statements, from the Texas Freedom Network, Bill White, State Rep. Mike Villarreal, and Fort Bend County Democratic Party Chair Stephen Brown, about this travesty beneath the fold. Texas Politics has a reaction from US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who echoes former Bush Education Secretary Rod Paige. The only thing we can do about this is elect some better SBOE members. Three such candidates running this year are Judy Jennings, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, and Michael Soto. The TDP got video statements from all three at the meeting, which you can see below:

Here’s a video of TFN President Kathy Miller, whose group has been a stalwart all throughout this process and which deserves your support as much as any candidate:

We can’t afford any more of this crap. We have a chance to do something about it this year. Please help these folks out.

(more…)

White tells the SBOE to wait till next year

As we know, the SBOE is set to take a final vote on their proposed revisions to the social studies textbook standards. They’ve received a lot of mostly negative feedback so far, but have said they’re still considering specific suggestions. Here’s what Bill White had to say to them.

I write to urge the State Board of Education to return the proposed revisions to the Social Studies TEKS, 19 TAC Chapter 13, Subchapters A, B, and C, to the TEKS review committees and to delay adoption of the TEKS until January 2011. Some of the revisions proposed by the SBOE are in direct conflict with the recommendations of the review teams and others with subject matter expertise. Substitution of judgments by elected officials on subjects requiring expertise runs counter to basic principles of academic freedom and respect for the professionalism of educators.

I specifically object to the proposed revisions to Subchapter C, Section 113.42(c)(20)(C) and ask that the proposal as written by the review committee prior to the SBOE’s revisions be adopted.

That TEK was designed by educators and experts to teach about the impact of Enlightenment period ideas, following Section 113.42(20)(A) which recognizes the ideas as a precursor to democratic-republican government. Instead of providing content to support the lesson, the SBOE’s proposal strips out the terms “Enlightenment ideas” and “political revolutions,” and omits Thomas Jefferson from the list of Enlightenment thinkers who inspired political revolutions.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.

Sincerely,

Bill White

A press release from White is beneath the fold. It’s not too late for you to submit your own feedback if you want to. The goal here is to get them to put it off till 2011, when the current lame ducks have been replaced by their elected successors. There’s no way it actually happens, of course – you think Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar are going to turn this chance down? – but we’ve got to be as loud and clear as we can about their illegitimacy. The Trib and TFN have more, the latter including a list of McLeroy’s proposed amendments. Because what they’ve come up with isn’t bad enough already.

(more…)

We’ve done well, but we can still do better

The defeat of wingnut candidate Brian Russell, who was backed by departing SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar to succeed her, in the GOP runoff this week is unquestionably good news that will help de-loonify that dysfunctional body. I’m as glad as anyone to see Marsha Farney be the GOP nominee in that race. But let’s be clear that while Farney is a step up from Dunbar and Russell, we shouldn’t expect too much from her.

Farney, of Georgetown, now faces a strong challenge from Austin Democrat Judy Jennings in November.

The two candidates seem strangely similar at first glance: women with doctorates in education whose children attended public schools.

Both also discuss the need for board members to respect teachers as they adopt curriculum standards and textbooks.

They could, however, land on very different sides of the ideological divide that has recently defined the 15-member board. It is sharply split between a tightly knit conservative bloc and a more moderate — and less predictable — group.

Jennings said she was the “only candidate who has consistently advocated for taking the politics out of the State Board of Education, out of the curriculum and the textbook approval process.”

[…]

Farney has resisted others’ efforts to assign her a label and said she will be a predominantly conservative voice who aligns herself with the people of her district rather than a board faction.

Jennings’ consultant, however, said Farney tacked far to the right in the runoff as she tried to out-conservative Russell, the favorite of incumbent Cynthia Dunbar and other conservatives on the board.

“That does not inspire confidence in me that she is going to get on the board and stand up to the bloc of zealots,” said consultant Alfred Stanley . “People cannot assume and project upon Marsha Farney what they want to see.”

The Texas Freedom Network, while expressing its happiness at Russell’s defeat, remains wary of Farney.

Farney’s campaign hardly made her look like a moderate. She trumpeted her anti-abortion views as well as her opposition to same-sex marriage — two issues that have nothing to do with the state board. Of course, the religious right took control of the state board over the years by running vicious election campaigns attacking opponents for allegedly wanting to teach students about masturbation and gay sex, distribute condoms and other contraception to kids, promote abortion and other nonsense. So perhaps Farney’s strategy was to inoculate herself against similar attacks and reassure social conservatives that she was a safe vote. In any case, it’s hard to know at this point whether she will align with the board’s far-right faction.

It was Rebecca Osborne, who finished third in the March race, who positioned herself as the moderate choice. Now that Farney has to run against a Democrat in a district that’s mighty purple in November – in 2008, Barack Obama got 48.4% of the vote in SBOE10, and in 2006, Bill Moody got 49.8% – she may try to do the same. If so, that’s all to the good. The difference, of course, is that with Judy Jennings, you’ve got someone who doesn’t have to pivot to present herself as moderate and sensible. Farney’s a better choice than Russell, but Jennings is better than Farney. Why settle for less?

Just a minute, SBOE

I almost missed this op-ed by State Rep. Carol Alvarado about everyone’s favorite clown show, the State Board of Education. In it, she hits on a theme we’re seeing more and more of.

How can board members claim that our students will be college-ready when those same members use curriculum standards to rewrite history?

For example, board members deleted Thomas Jefferson, who wrote our Declaration of Independence and championed separation of church and state, from a list of great Enlightenment thinkers who have inspired people around the world in their struggles for freedom. They refused to require students to learn that the First Amendment bars government from promoting one religion over all others.

Even though we’ve seen similar stuff lately from the likes of Bill White and State Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, it didn’t hit me until I read those paragraphs that what we’re witnessing is Democrats using a cultural wedge issue against the Republicans. I guess I just don’t see that often enough to recognize it for what it is. And it’s one on which the GOP ought to be vulnerable. I mean, who outside of the Cynthia Dunbar nut fringe has an issue with Thomas Jefferson, for crying out loud? Let Dunbar’s partymates get into all the nuances to explain her bizarre rationale, we’ll be over here pointing out how whacked out it is to be calling a Founding Father intolerant of Christianity. And I must say, as a child of the 80s who lived through all of the Dead White European Males culture war stuff, it’s hilarious to see it all come full circle like this. Who said history had to repeat itself as tragedy before it became a farce?

Rep. Alvarado has an idea for how to handle this that I like, too:

Board members should seriously reconsider this process and assure parents that they are putting the education of Texas schoolchildren first. Doing so requires only some fairly simple steps.

First, the current process should be halted and resumed only when the newly elected state board members take their seats in January. Doing so will help the board create a new process that is better insulated from personal and political agendas. There is no need to hurry through the revision of standards that will guide what our children learn for a decade.

What she means, of course, is that the Board should not vote to give final approval to the new standards that were approved earlier this month until after Dunbar, Don McLeroy, and Geraldine Miller have all finished serving their terms. We know McLeroy and Miller will be replaced by more moderate voices, and Dunbar may be, depending on the GOP primary runoff and/or the November election; Ken Mercer is also facing a strong challenger. The odds are that many, maybe even all, of the crazier things that got adopted this month could be repealed and replaced if the final decision were left till 2011. Obviously, I don’t expect this to happen, but as campaign fodder goes, it’s pretty darned good.

“The list of shame”

Here are three last reminders of that gang of idiots known as the State Board of Education before they return in May to finalize the vandalism they committed last week. First up, from the Texas Freedom Network:

So what happened? Over just a few days in January and this month, the state board shredded nearly a year’s worth of detailed work by teachers, scholars and other curriculum writers. In vote after vote, board members made numerous and outrageously foolish, intolerant and ignorant changes based on little more than their own (limited) knowledge and personal beliefs.

The problem isn’t simply that many changes were wrong factually. Teachers will surely despair as they read through the numerous names, dates and events board members added willy-nilly to the standards with little consideration of how in the world to cram all of those facts into the limited instructional time available for classes.

In addition to that, poor scholarship — if scholarship is a word that can be used to describe any “research” done by this board — was particularly evident during the debate. On more than one occasion, board members simply resorted to Internet searches from laptops at their desks. They invited no historians, economists, sociologists or even classroom teachers to guide them as they rewrote history (and standards for government, economics, sociology and other social studies courses) with scores of ill-considered, politically motivated amendments. In fact, board members had explicitly rejected a proposal in November that they invite such experts to be on hand during the debate. They simply didn’t want to be bothered with facts and real scholarship as they moved to transform a curriculum document into a political manifesto.

They then present a long list of excruciatingly dumb things the Board did. You may need a drink to get through it all. When you’re done with that, here’s a Statesman editorial to finish you off.

The McLeroy faction occupied seven of the 15 seats on the board and has used that to force a very narrow worldview into Texas public school instruction. So cocky was McLeroy before the March 2 primary that he said the balloting was a referendum on the board’s performance.

The voters spoke, but McLeroy and company obviously weren’t listening. Board chairwoman Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, quit listening as well. She sided with radicals on tie votes at last week’s meeting. Lowe was appointed to head the board after the Texas Senate refused to confirm McLeroy as board chair.

McLeroy, [Cynthia] Dunbar and [Geraldine] Miller’s terms expire in December, a month that can’t come soon enough.

Remember when Paul Burka advised Lowe to try to be non-controversial as SBOE Chair? Guess that didn’t take. Too bad for all of us. Last but not least, Dave Mann asks the question that I’m sure many more people will be asking in the coming months:

I can think of no other state agency that has a separately elected board of non-experts that controls key agency functions. Some people argue that education is so important, it requires this added layer of policy-making (and I’m using that term in its loosest sense).

But is education any more important than other policy areas—like ensuring we have clean air, monitoring doctors, dispensing food stamps to poor families, determining which children receive government health insurance—that we delegate to administrative agencies? I don’t think so.

In fact, one frustrated board member, Mary Helen Berlanga, even said several times during last week’s meeting that the Legislature should consider abolishing the State Board, telling the Texas Tribune that, “I think we’re going downhill.”

In the 2009 session, state lawmakers from both parties proposed bills that would have stripped the State Board of much of its power or abolished it entirely. None of them came close to passing. But there’s always next session.

And after another State Board meeting filled with cringe-worthy moments, quite a few legislators probably find the notion of abolishing the board rather appealing.

Honestly, I don’t think that’s likely to happen. But if it’s at least in the conversation, that will say quite a bit.

Endorsement watch: Statesman on the SBOE

The Statesman makes some recommendations in SBOE primaries in hopes of getting a better, or at least a slightly less dysfunctional, Board for the coming year.

In the District 5 Republican primary, Tim Tuggey, 54, gets our endorsement. Tuggey, running against incumbent Ken Mercer, is a lawyer and lobbyist from Austin who graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, served as a captain in the U.S. Army and is a product of Texas public schools.

Tuggey brings a level head and financial management experience to the board. It speaks volumes that he has earned the endorsement of business leader Red McCombs and H-E-B. CEO Charles Butt for a campaign that focuses on improving dropout rates, preparing students for college or work after high school and competent oversight of the school fund.

In the District 5 Democratic primary, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, 60, is the best choice. She is running against Daniel Boone, Josiah James Ingalls and Robert Bohmfalk.

Bell-Metereau brings strong skills to the job as a longtime English professor at Texas State University. With a distinguished academic background, experience raising two daughters in San Marcos public schools, high energy and thorough knowledge of the challenges facing public schools, she won’t put politics over children’s welfare.

For District 10, we endorse Republican Rebecca Osborne, 51, a teacher in the Round Rock school district. It would be a refreshing change to have someone on the board who could give a contemporary classroom perspective. In addition to college preparation, she wants schools to offer career and vocational instruction for students who decide to go directly to jobs after high school.

[…]

We’re also making an endorsement in the District 9 race that includes Brazos County, home of Texas A&M University. We recommend Thomas Ratliff in the Republican primary.

Ratliff, 42, of Mount Pleasant, a graduate of Texas Tech University with a UT master’s degree, has immersed himself in public school issues, including serving as a room parent for his daughter’s second grade class. He understands the urgency of the task of getting students ready to compete in a global society.

His opponent, incumbent Don McLeroy, 63, is stuck in the past, advocating a back-to-basics curriculum that all but guarantees that Texas students will lag behind their peers. Time to end McLeroy’s tenure.

That’s not even counting McLeroy’s – and Mercer’s – troglodytic views on science, history, and just about everything else. The Trib has a good overview of the SBOE 5 GOP primary as well, and you just can’t help but notice how much this stuff is about politics and grievances for the likes of Mercer and McLeroy and their destructive crew. Getting those two to join their retiring comrade Cynthia Dunbar on the sidelines would be such a huge step forward.

The SBOE slate

Martha has a great rundown of the slate of candidates for the State Board of Education, along with some partisan index numbers for the districts, which you should check out. The best part about this is that with Michael Soto replacing Rick Agosto in District 3, the Board is assured of being at least a little bit better. Dems have a decent shot at claiming the now-open seat being vacated by the loony Cynthia Dunbar in 10, but even if Judy Jennings doesn’t pull it off, we may get a better Republican in there if Rebecca Osborne is their nominee. Knocking off the crappy Ken Mercer in District 5 is a much longer shot, but Rebecca Bell-Metereau and Daniel Boone are both good candidates for the Democrats. And finally, if Thomas Ratliff can take out ur-wingnut Don McLeroy in the GOP primary in 9, that would be beyond awesome.

I suppose one benefit to having a Board that’s as full of clowns and losers as this one is that there’s a lot of upside and very little risk in an election like this. The potential is there for the SBOE of 2011 to be a vast improvement over the SBOE of 2009. So go take a look at the list of candidates, and see who you can help to make that happen this March and November. The Trib has more.

Dunbar not running for re-election

Hallelujah.

Richmond Republican Cynthia Dunbar will not seek re-election next year to a second term on the State Board of Education, fellow board member David Bradley confirmed Wednesday

Dunbar, whose expansive district includes northern Travis County, wrote in an e-mail that she would provide a written statement on her plans later.

Dunbar has recently been teaching at the the Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Va. That job and the commute has put great demands on her time, Bradley said.

“She will be missed,” Bradley said.

Yeah, like an abscessed tooth. Thankfully, she’ll be going, but as the Trib notes, she’s got a minion waiting in the wings.

[Brian] Russell, who previously endorsed Dunbar and seeks to be her replacement, has nothing but kind words for Dunbar: “I think she’s had a terrific record of achievement on the board. She’s been a problem solver and someone who’s exhibitied a lot of leadership.”

“My advantage is that I haven’t been a lightning rod,” he said.

BOR has more about Russell. Needless to say, the best outcome here is for the seat to be won by Democrat Judy Jennings, who is running unopposed in the primary after Lorenzo Sadun stepped aside. This is a winnable seat, and to take it would help shift the balance of power in the rational/non-crazy direction. TFN Insider has more.

Perry appoints Lowe chair of SBOE

The good news is, he didn’t pick Cynthia Dunbar. The bad news is, it’s not clear how much better new State Board of Education Chair Gail Lowe will be.

Lowe, co-publisher of the Lampasas Dispatch Record, was first elected to the board in 2002 after serving on the Lampasas school board.

Perry’s pick avoids the controversy that would have followed if he had selected one of the members whose names have been floated as likely candidates, including Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richardson.

Lowe consistently votes with the conservative wing of the 15-member board but she has typically been a quiet presence.

That makes her sound somewhat like Barbara Cargill, about whom The Contrarian recently wrote. About Lowe, The Contrarian says:

My impression of Lowe — from watching hours of State Board proceedings last year (an experience from which I’m still recovering) — is that she’s not the savviest operator in the group. She’ll likely be a quieter public presence as chair than [Don] McLeroy.

The open question is whether she’ll be more effective at passing a socially conservative agenda.

That may make this a very savvy move by Perry, if it turns out Lowe is effective in getting wingnuttery passed but manages to avoid becoming an easy target by being low key. So far, some potential critics are staying reserved.

Richard Kouri, public affairs director for the Texas State Teachers Association, said Lowe’s selection is no surprise.

“She’s certainly somebody who’d been on the short list of names that had been circulated … pretty much comes from that same sort of conservative block.”

Kouri said his organization will closely watch next week’s meeting. They’ll look for clues as to whether Lowe will be able to calm the politicized rifts that have characterized the board in recent years. Debates over language arts and science curriculum have been especially contentious and a revision of social studies objectives is already heating up similarly.

“Given the split on that board, we would like to see a chair that I guess is more the arbitrator, more the person who is going to create a level and fair environment for the discourse to happen, not basically be the kind of chair that says, ‘This is what I believe, now eight or nine of you line up behind me,” Kouri said.

Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association in Fort Worth, agreed that change is needed.

“I sincerely hope they start taking more realistic positions instead of political positions because they’ve made themselves irrelevant in the minds of many educators, including me,” he said.

Others, like the Texas Freedom Network and Hal at Half Empty, are unimpressed. Here’s TFN:

In 2004 Ms. Lowe opposed requiring that publishers obey curriculum standards and put medically accurate information about responsible pregnancy and disease prevention in new high school health textbooks.

In 2007 Ms. Lowe voted to throw out nearly three years of work by teacher writing teams on new language arts standards. Over the strenuous objections of teachers and curriculum specialists, Lowe instead voted for a standards document that the board’s far-right bloc patched together overnight and slipped under hotel doors the morning of the final vote.

In 2003 and 2009 Ms. Lowe supported dumbing down the state’s public school science curriculum by voting to include unscientific, creationist criticisms of evolution in science textbooks and curriculum standards.

Going back to that Star-Telegram article, Lowe makes herself sound like a mixed bag.

Lowe, who is also a Republican conservative, thinks she was selected by Perry because she is the type of person who writes headlines instead of making them.

“I’m a little bit more of a background person than others,” she said. “I’m not upfront. I choose my words carefully and don’t speak an awful lot.”

She said she is honored by the appointment and will do her best.

“There are a number of our members I think would have made excellent leaders,” she said, “but I’m probably freeing up others who are more vocal, to continue to do what they do.”

“I think Cynthia (Dunbar) would’ve done a good job as chair, but she’s such an outspoken person that I think she would’ve been a lightning rod,” Lowe said. “I’m sure I will get that kind of scrutiny, too. I’m not naive.”

Lowe’s youngest child is still in public school, and she has served as a Lampasas school trustee and classroom volunteer before being elected to the SBOE seven years ago.

“My emphasis has always been on academic achievement and that’s what I will continue to pursue,” Lowe said.

At least she has a kid in public school, which is a clear distinction from the Dunbars of the world, who are working to kill public schools. If she really does focus on academic achievement, and stays away from the divisive stuff that’s been the SBOE’s hallmark lately, she’ll at least be a step up from McLeroy. On the other hand, if she really did think Dunbar would have made a good Chair but for her outspokenness, that’s worrisome. We’ll just have to see how it goes. What I do know is that getting some of the clowns off of the Board remains a top priority, and that means getting Dunbar and McLeroy unelected next year. The less crazy the Board is as a whole, the less it matters how kooky the Chair is.

The SBOE’s assault on history

In my earlier post about the virtues of a pro-science PAC, I mentioned that the State Board of Education had turned its attention towards doing to social studies what it had done to science. Vince gives a great rundown of the so-called “expert” who is heading up the SBOE’s panel reviewing the curriculum. Check it all out, then tell me if you think I’m exaggerating about the need for those PACs I suggested.

In related news, the Texas Freedom Network chronicles the far right’s push to get Cynthia Dunbar appointed Chair of the SBOE, while the new Observer blog The Contrarian suggests that having Dunbar and her out-there in-your-face nuttiness would be better than having an equally conservative but much more presentable Chair like Barbara Cargill. On the assumption, which I’d made all along, that we’ll never get a sane Chair as long as Rick Perry is in charge, I have to concede the wisdom of that line of thinking. If nothing else, the likes of Dunbar will serve as good campaign material.

SciencePAC

Chad Orzel mentions an idea by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum from their book Unscientific America.

Why not form a nonpartisan science political action committee, or PAC, devoted to funding candidates who are either scientists themselves or who make science a strong priority and have good records on science issues? With adequate fundind, the PAC might select, say, five or ten members or candidates to support each election cycle. If there’s a desire to be really aggressive (and we have mixed feelings about this strategy), it could also target science “bad guys”– climate change deniers, officials who promote manufactured scientific controversies, anti-evolutionists, and the like– who deserve to be unelected and give campaign funds to their opponents.

I think this is a great idea, and one that’s long overdue. Having pro-science candidates isn’t something that will happen by accident, or (if you’ll pardon the pun) by natural selection. Putting some skin in the game goes a long way towards making sure the things that are important to you are being represented in your government. The anti-science forces have no qualms about doing this. I see no reason why the pro-science side should stay on the sidelines. I can understand the concern about undercutting the impartiality of science, but when one side is advocating lies and distortions, I don’t see how standing up for the truth is a problem.

And yes, I think it’s as important to target bad guys as it is to promote the good guys. Use the Texas Parent PAC, which has promoted pro-education candidates in both parties, as a model. They put themselves on the map by knocking off State Rep. Kent Grusendorf, the public education-hating chair of the House Education Committee, back in 2006, doing the state of Texas an enormous favor in the process. A pro-science PAC could do a lot more good next year by backing primary challengers to Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar for the State Board of Education, shifting to support Dunbar’s Democratic opponent in the general election if need be. Honestly, this is a no-brainer.

Now Mooney and Kirshenbaum are writing about a national PAC, presumably to affect Congressional races, but the point is the same, and frankly there’s no reason there couldn’t be a bunch of state PACs that take after a national PAC. And if you really are squeamish about raising money for candidates, you can always go the grassroots activism route, though you’ll still need to raise money for it. The bottom line is that the scientific community is operating at a disadvantage, and the sooner it realizes that, the better.

Oh, and if the SBOE’s latest hijinx is any indication, historians should be forming a PAC as well. Clearly, no academic discipline is safe as long as this clown show is on the air.

Dunbar in line to chair SBOE

The crazy never stops.

Critics who engineered the recent ouster of State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, in part because of his strong religious beliefs, could end up with someone even more outspoken in her faith.

Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, who advocated more Christianity in the public square last year with the publication of her book, One Nation Under God, is among those that Gov. Rick Perry is considering to lead the State Board of Education, some of her colleagues say.

Critics are gasping and allies are cheering over speculation that Dunbar, a lawyer, could win a promotion to the leadership spot.

“It would certainly cause angst among the same members of the pagan left that rejected Don McLeroy because he was a man of faith,” said David Bradley, R-Beaumont, one of the seven socially conservative members on the 15-person board.

Perry’s office declined to comment until “a final decision is made.”

No one can say we didn’t see this coming. It’s always about Rick Perry’s primary campaign, and board member Bradley’s comment sums up what the most important issue for the conservative movement is these days: Pissing off liberals. Who cares about anything else if it makes the “pagan left” unhappy? Well, some of us think that elevating Dunbar in this fashion will ultimately make it easier to beat her at the ballot box next year. So go right ahead, I say. Keep reminding everyone what a freak show the SBOE is, and how out of the mainstream the Republican Party that enables it is. We’ll be happy to have that conversation with the voters next year. Vince, EoW, and the Texas Freedom Network have more.

Five for SBOE 10

I think it’s safe to say the State Board of Education elections aren’t going to be the obscure affairs they’ve historically been any more. We know that now-former SBOE Chair Don McLeroy has drawn a high-profile primary challenger, and one of his chief cohorts in Crazytown, Cynthia Dunbar, has collected a total of five opponents, three Democrats and two Republicans. I was aware of two of the Democrats back in February (one of whom, Lorenzo Sadun, has now made his entry official), and now they have more company. SBOE 10 is pretty close to a 50-50 district, so this one should be quite the skirmish. With any luck at all, we could have a vastly saner Board of Ed in 2011. I sure hope so.

Senate spikes McLeroy

Good for them.

The Texas Senate on Thursday refused to confirm Don McLeroy as State Board of Education chairman after an impassioned floor debate.

The 19 to 11 party-line vote was not enough to get McLeroy across the required two-thirds threshold. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, abstained from the vote.

McLeroy, a Republican from Bryan, was first elected to the board in 1998 and will remain in that position.

But Gov. Rick Perry will now need to appoint another leader from the 15-member board. Critics said McLeroy’s nearly two-year tenure as chairman has been dysfunctional and divisive.

I know I said that I’d give any Dem a pass on this one if they thought they needed to confirm him. I’m glad they didn’t take me up on that. If Rick Perry does appoint someone decent like Bob Craig, it’s a win all around. And if he goes full metal wingnut and gives us Cynthia Dunbar, well, I’ll look forward to the 2010 campaign that much more. TFN, which led the way on this one, has a full accounting of the proceedings and a statement on the outcome. Elise and Kilday Hart have more.

The zombie nominee

As we know, the Senate confirmation of Don McLeroy as Chair of the State Board of Education, which we all thought had been scuttled back in April, got new life earlier this week when Senate Nominations Committee chair Mike Jackson, who had originally said he wouldn’t bring the issue up if the votes weren’t there to confirm McLeroy, brought it up and got committee approval. The full Senate will take it up next week, and the question is what if anything has changed. Elise Hu games it out.

So the Dems think they can effectively block with commitments of twelve senators to vote no. Meanwhile, TEA sources say they’ve heard something different.

“I’ve heard two or three Democrats [would vote for McLeroy],” said TEA Commissioner Robert Scott. “I’ve also heard one Republican is a hard ‘no’, so no one really knows for sure.”

The timing is everything, considering the number of votes to confirm McLeroy depend on how many members are present at the time of the vote. Assuming all the Republican members will vote in favor, it would take at least three Democratic senators to leave the floor and not cast a vote in order for McLeroy to make it through.

Scott and TEA General Counsel David Anderson reminded us that this might be one of those “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” situations, saying it’s unclear who McLeroy would be replaced with as chairman, and it’s unknown whether that would be more or less satisfying to McLeroy’s detractors.

The Dems could survive one defection, as eleven votes are sufficient to derail the nomination. Muse and Lisa Falkenberg consider what might happen if McLeroy does get sunk. Muse:

What happens if McLeroy is not confirmed? Governor Perry gets to appoint someone else from the SBOE as Chair. He could certainly appoint someone who is equally as bad – Dunbar, Cargill, Mercer, Leo or Bradley. Or he could appoint a moderate Republican like Bob Craig, who has the best interests of Texas school children top of mind instead of a far religious right agenda.

That’s a nice thought, but I fear Falkenberg is correct:

But another question is whether McLeroy’s defeat will really save the state of Texas any further embarrassment?

Maybe not. According to another bit of scuttlebutt from a lawmaker and few e-mailers today, it could actually make things worse. I always thought if McLeroy were ousted, Perry would pick one of thoughtful, sensible Republicans who serve on the board. There are several good choices: Bob Craig of Lubbock, Geraldine “Tincy” Miller of Dallas and Patricia Hardy of Weatherford.

But the name I heard mentioned today was none of those. It was Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond.

Yes, that Cynthia Dunbar.

It’s certainly makes me wonder if, under at least one scenario, McLeroy’s miracle could actually save us from a curse far worse.

What’s an enlightened Texan to do?

My answer to that question is to work one’s enlightened keester off in 2010 to ensure that we have a Governor who won’t view such embarrassments as good politics. Working to unelect Dunbar, whose SBOE district is a nice shade of purple, wouldn’t hurt either. Not the sexiest answer in the world, I know, but that’s the way it goes.

As far as McLeroy himself is concerned, if I thought there was a reasonable chance that Perry would take this failure as a lesson in the need to moderate, I’d go all in on torpedoing him. But when has Perry ever done that? I believe he’ll just double down on the crazy, since that’s clearly his electoral strategy and this would present him with another opportunity to stroke the aggrieved paranoia of his base while giving KBH another opportunity to not address a hot button issue because she’s too damn wishy-washy. Given that, I say the Dem Senators can do whatever they think is best. Draw the line in the sand, curry favor with Finance Chair Steve Ogden (who happens to be McLeroy’s Senator), come down with a newly-evolved 24-hour virus and miss the whole sorry spectacle, I’m giving a free pass. Just put us all out of our misery and get it over with.

UPDATE: Muse notes that Republicans are calling Democratic senators to implore them to vote to confirm McLeroy. She also has a list of Dem senators whose position on McLeroy’s confirmation are unknown.

UPDATE: And more from Muse, who clearly disagrees with me on this.

No sunset for SBOE

Well, that‘s too bad.

Just yesterday the Texas House approved on second reading House Bill 710, which would have made the Texas State Board of Education subject to periodic review by the Sunset Advisory Commission. That vote was 74-68. But the House just voted down the measure on third reading, 71-73. Only one Republican crossed the aisle to vote for HB 710.

The vote came after religious conservatives — rallied by a virtual “who’s who” of right-wing pressure groups — bombarded House offices with e-mails and phone calls opposing this common-sense bill. That pressure campaign didn’t surprise us — far-right groups have been thrilled that the state board is controlled by ideologues who keep dragging public schools into the culture wars. But the vote should be terribly disappointing for parents and other taxpayers who are tired of extremists using the State Board of Education as a playground for promoting ideological agendas.

That means we’re gonna have to beat ’em at the ballot box, starting next year with Cynthia Dunbar. An equivalent to the Texas Parent PAC for the SBOE, to facilitate going after those who need to be taken out in a GOP primary, would be nice. Elise has more.

Clipping the SBOE

Patricia Kilday Hart has the quote of the day.

The fallout from the State Board of Education’s debate over the teaching of evolution continued this morning in the Senate Education Committee, which held a spirited discussion on Sen. Kel Seliger’s SB 2275 transferring authority for textbook adoption from the State Board of Education to the state’s Education Commissioner.

How spirited? Sen. Kip Averitt, one of the most soft-spoken members of the Senate, was moved to observe that partisan discord has so infected the State Board that its Democrats believe “Republicans want to impose their religious beliefs” on public school students while its Republicans believe “Democrats want to teach our children how to masturbate.”

That woke up the audience members, some no doubt wondering how such a course might boost their kid’s GPA.

Finally, a scholastic category in which we’d have hope of not being Number 50 in the nation. And just imagine what the standardized tests would be like. TFN Insider, which thinks Sen. Seliger’s bill is a good idea, and the Observer have more on the debate and on Sen. Averitt’s remarks.

Quote of the day runnerup goes to the Wall Street Journal for their article on the SBOE’s shenanigans.

“At this point, a lot of us are questioning…whether the state Board of Education serves a purpose anymore,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat.

Most state boards of education oversee curricula and assessment tests, but responsibilities for textbooks and school funding vary from state to state.

Board members, who aren’t paid, object to most legislative meddling.

“As crazy as the Texas Board of Education is, there are just as many crazies, percentage-wise, in the state Legislature,” said board member Pat Hardy. Another member, Cynthia Dunbar, said the board’s fierce debates should be seen as a sign that all views are well represented.

I think it’s incumbent on all of us to figure out a way to compare the levels of craziness between the two bodies. Maybe we can get Nate Silver to do some kind of regression analysis on the question. And I must say, regardless of the outcome of that, Cynthia Dunbar does an excellent job of making sure that the crazy constituency is well-represented; hell, between her, Don McLeroy, David Bradley, and some others, that’s easily the best-represented group in the state. Which, naturally, brings us back to the point of Sen. Seliger’s bill. Here’s hoping it makes it through.

Strengths and weaknesses fails

That’s the good news.

San Antonio’s Ken Mercer, part of the board’s seven-member social conservative bloc, tried to put the much-debated “strengths and weaknesses” language back into the state’s science standards that guide the content of textbooks and curriculum. Mercer’s amendment to a final draft of the science standards would have required science teachers to discuss the so-called weaknesses of evolutionary theory in their science classes.

A few minutes ago, Mercer’s amendment failed by one vote (the tally was 7-7).

Corpus Christi’s Mary Helen Berlanga missed this morning’s vote, though she isn’t one of the board’s social conservatives and would be expected to vote against the strengths weaknesses language.

The board will take a final vote on the science standards tomorrow.

Unless one of the other members has a last-minute change of heart, it appears the strengths and weaknesses language won’t be included in the new science standards. That would be a huge victory for the pro-evolution side.

That’s very good news, as it avoids Texas becoming a national laughingstock for the time being. This sort of thing never truly goes away, of course, so we can never let up. Unelecting some of the troglodtyes on the Board would make the job a lot easier. One such possible target is Democrat Rick Agosto of San Antonio, who is at best wishy-washy on a lot of science issues, and who might be easier to take out in a primary than any of the Republicans in a general election. Keep an eye on him.

The bad news is that some other petty little odious amendments did make it through. I haven’t followed this closely enough to tell you about it, but there are plenty of others who have, so for more information than you could possibly need, here’s where to go:

TFN‘s exhaustive liveblogs – one, two, three, four.

Vince’s liveblog from today.

Thoughts from Kansas, another busy liveblogger. Too many posts to recount – try their creationism archives for an overview.

Martha on Twitter – you might also search for the #txsboe hashtag. Martha also testified before the committee.

On balance, I’d call it a good week for science, though between this and the stem cell skulduggery, I wouldn’t say it was good by that much.

UPDATE: The TFN summarizes:

OK, we’ve had a little time to digest all that went on today at the Texas State Board of Education. Without going through each of the many amendments that passed, here’s essentially what happened. This morning the board slammed the door on bringing creationism into classrooms through phony “weaknesses” arguments. But then board members turned around and threw open all the windows to pseudoscientific nonsense attacking core concepts like common descent and natural selection.

The amendments approved today are very problematic, regardless of the important victory over “strengths and weaknesses.” We anticipate that all 15 board members will be participating tomorrow, however, including a pro-science member who was absent today. So there is still time to reverse course.

Tomorrow, with the final vote, the board has a serious decision to make: is the science education of the next generation of Texas schoolchildren going to be based on fact-based, 21st-century science or on the personal beliefs of board members promoting phony arguments and pseudoscience?

You can still weigh in by sending e-mails to board members at sboeteks@tea.state.tx.us. Texas Education Agency staff will distribute e-mails to board members.

Like I said, it could have been a lot worse. But it could still be a lot better.

UPDATE: Dave Mann thinks the picture is bleaker.

The seven social conservatives on the 15-member board mostly got their way this afternoon. They passed a series of minor amendments that, with a slight word change here and there, diluted the state’s science standards and the teaching of evolutionary theory. Critics say these proposals open loopholes in the standards for the teaching of unscientific theories espoused by religious conservatives. (The same approach was tried, quite successfully, at the board’s meeting in January.)

[…]

The change in fortunes occurred largely because of Rick Agosto of San Antonio, who voted against the social conservatives in the morning and mostly with them in the afternoon. Agosto is viewed as the key swing vote on the board. He voted against the “strengths and weaknesses” language in January and again this morning, despite fierce lobbying from religious groups in his district.

Agosto wasn’t alone. Several other pro-evolution board members voted with the social conservatives’ this afternoon.

The board will take its final vote on the science standards, which will set content of classes and textbooks for years to come, tomorrow. The board can add in or take out language up until final passage.

So one last fight is likely tomorrow.

Remember the name Rick Agosto. The fight next year has to be in March as well.

The dentist in charge

The Statesman has a profile of Don McLeroy, the young-earth creationist who is also the chair of the State Board of Education and who is currently leading the fight to cripple science education in Texas. I’m not going to get into the details of this story – Hal and TFN Insider do all the heavy lifting, if you’re interested – but I will pass along Greg’s observation that McLeroy didn’t score a particularly impressive electoral victory in 2006, and will be on the ballot again in 2010. That’s the good news; the bad news is that McLeroy’s district is made up of 28 mostly small, mostly rural counties – suburban Collin County was about 30% of the vote there in 06 – and therefore isn’t likely to be all that friendly to a Dem in 2010, no matter how much more attention McLeroy’s harmful antics attract. Still, this is a fight that will need to be fought, so I hope he will draw an opponent at least as strong as his fellow traveller Cynthia Dunbar has done.

Two challengers for Dunbar

Cynthia Dunbar, one of the loonier members of the State Board of Education, has at least two Austin-based Democrats considering challenges against her in 2010.

In the past two days, party activist Susan Shelton confirmed to me that she definitely plans to challenge Dunbar, and University of Texas math professor Lorenzo Sadun said he’s “very likely.” Sadun also told me he’s heard “as many as a dozen people are thinking of running” as Democrats.

“Yes, I’m running,” Shelton told me at the Central Texas Democratic Forum on Thursday. “I’ve been reading Dunbar’s book, and we need somebody less extreme in there.

“I had to run,” Shelton continued. “It’s a cliche, but I’ll need somebody to take care of me in my dotage, and I need them to be educated. There was no way I could not do this.”

I met Susan at the state Democratic convention last year, and I recall her talking about this at that time. I’m glad to see her follow through. Both she and Sadun would be vast upgrades over Dunbar.

Shelton emphasized that she will not begin actively campaigning until after Austin’s May 9 municipal elections. She serves as political director for Lee Leffingwell’s mayoral campaign, and said she wants to focus on “one race at a time.”

Sadun said that if he finally makes it official, he’ll also wait until after the muni contests. He said he also wants to wait to see he results of several SBOE-related bills before the 81st Texas Legislation, which will wrap up June 1. “None of them are likely to go anywhere,” Sadun opined, but if a bill by Austin Rep. Donna Howard to make SBOE elections nonpartisan is successful, “that will change everything. … Then the election would be in November with no runoff. In that case, we must not have the anti-Dunbar candidates splitting the vote.”

While I can understand the appeal of Rep. Howard’s bill (HB420, for which Rep. Ellen Cohen is listed as a coauthor), I don’t really think it solves anything. What I would expect to happen is that there would be fewer votes cast in these already-obscure elections, and that fewer voters would have any real idea about the candidates and their positions. At least with the label of a political party, you have some expectation that the candidates each have a set of beliefs that fall roughly within a certain spectrum. Under HB420, you’d have even less than that. A better solution to de-mystifying these low-information down-ballot races would be to ensure the candidates have the resources to make themselves known to the voters, which implies some kind of public campaign financing scheme. As that’s a non-starter around here, I’d prefer either abolishing the SBOE altogether, as Sen. Rodney Ellis is seeking to do, or greatly expanding its size, so that each district is smaller and thus cheaper in which to run – SBOE districts are now twice the size of Congressional districts – to making the races nonpartisan. All due respect to Reps. Howard and Cohen, but I hope this bill goes nowhere.

UPDATE: If you’re in Austin, you totally need to see this. And please, take video and post it on YouTube. Thanks very much.

Chron coverage of yesterday’s SBOE actions

Here’s the Chron story about yesterday’s happenings at the State Board of Education, in which the good news was that the anti-science “strengths and weaknesses” language had been removed from the curriculum, and the bad news was that a subsequent attempt to back-door similar nonsense made it in for now.

The “strengths and weaknesses” standard has been a staple in the curriculum for about 20 years.

On Friday, however, the board looked again at the issue and decided students should have to evaluate a variety of fossil types and assess the arguments against universal common descent, which serves as a main principle of evolution — that all organisms have a common ancestor.

The board’s effort to undermine “universal common descent” in public schools will make the state’s science standards “an object of ridicule,” said Steve Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science.

“It’s really unscientific. It promotes creationism. It says that students will be required to learn arguments against common descent or ancestral connections,” Schafersman said. “The only alternative to common descent is creationism in their minds.”

Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board takes final action in March. New science curriculum standards will influence new science textbooks for the state’s 4.7 million public school children beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

One board member who pushed for the change said that fossil records create scientific evidence against universal common descent — and students should be allowed to study the possibility.

“There are many, many gaps that don’t link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other’s opinions,” said Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, a former science teacher.

[…]

They are asking students to explain something that does not exist, said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner.

“This new proposed language is absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the science standards, especially when they introduce new language that has not even been reviewed by a single science expert,” Hillis said.

Yeah. I mean, you wouldn’t want someone who doesn’t use the Internet setting standards for broadband, would you? The “fossil gap” argument is an old, longdiscredited one that keeps getting trotted out anyway. As Daniel Davies posited in The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA – Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101, good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. Not that this would stop the zealots on the SBOE.

The good news is that there should be time between now and March to get the same votes as before to reject this absurdity. That’s the hope, anyway. Martha has more. I’ve also got some testimony by 2008 candidate for SBOE Laura Ewing beneath the fold. We wouldn’t be going through this nonsense if Ewing had been elected, as there would then have been a clear majority for maintaining scientific standards, but sadly that was not to be. All the more reason to make sure we take out Cynthia Dunbar next year, that’s for sure. Click on for her account.

(more…)

Statesman calls on Dunbar to resign

Good for them.

Why in the name of common sense is Cynthia Dunbar on the State Board of Education when she despises public education so intensely? She is not there to improve public schools but to undermine them, and says as much in a recently published book she wrote.

[…]

It’s just too much. Anyone with Dunbar’s animus toward public schools should never be in charge of them or have an important voice on what is in our students’ textbooks. It’s a travesty that the state’s top officials aren’t attacking the problems created by this dysfunctional board and demanding that Dunbar step down.

But we will. Dunbar should resign and leave the governing of this state’s public schools to people who use them, serve them, care about them and understand that they are the future of Texas.

Yes, it is a travesty that there has been complete silence from our state’s leadership over this. Of course, given the attitudes many of them have towards public schools, it’s hardly surprising. I appreciate the Statesman taking a stand on this, but we all know Dunbar isn’t going anywhere. If she had the capacity for shame necessary for a resignation, she wouldn’t have written her atrocious book in the first place. This is a problem that will need to be solved at the ballot box. I hope that when that time comes, there will be sufficient coverage of the race for Dunbar’s SBOE seat, to help remind people of just what’s at stake. It would be an even bigger travesty if the cover of darkness that usually surrounds the SBOE works to Dunbar’s advantage again.

Oh, and by the way, Dunbar (and for that matter David Bradley) isn’t the only nut on the SBOE. Meet Ken Mercer, from San Antonio. There’s just no end to these clowns.

Finally, I see that State Rep. Donna Howard (D, Austin) plans to introduce a bill that would make SBOE elections non-partisan, among other reforms. From her press release on the subject, it’s clear she has Dunbar in mind. While I can see the merit of this, it’s not clear to me that removing the partisan labels will make it easier to vote Dunbar out. I’ll want to learn more about this before I consider supporting it.

The Cynthia Chronicles

In a way, you have to admire State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar. It can’t be easy to establish oneself as the craziest person on that undistinguished body, given the fierce competition that exists for that title, yet she nonetheless manages to stand apart from the pack.

In her book, One Nation Under God, Dunbar argues that the country’s founding fathers created “an emphatically Christian government” and believed that government should be guided by a “biblical litmus test.”

Dunbar endorses a belief system requiring “any person desiring to govern have a sincere knowledge and appreciation for the Word of God in order to rightly govern.”

She calls public education a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.” The establishment of public schools is unconstitutional and even “tyrannical,” she writes in the book, because it threatens the authority of families, granted by God through Scripture, to direct the instruction of their children.

Her book was not written for the general public, said Dunbar, whose 16-county area includes Fort Bend and Brazoria counties and part of Travis County.

“It’s mainly an educational tool to the body of Christ,” Dunbar said, adding that Christians appear to be targeted once they become active politically.

You know, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for someone who has power over the state’s public education system to not believe that said system is a tool of Satan. I also don’t think it’s too much to ask for a few prominent Republicans to offer some criticism of Dunbar and her whacked-out worldview. Seems to me it’s extremists like Dunbar who have done so much to give the Republican Party a bad name lately, and that a little public disavowal might go a long way towards keeping some of those “critical middle” types from straying further away. But hey, what do I know? Keep it up, Cynthia. The campaign materials for your future opponent are writing themselves as we speak.