Low expectations as Repubs hold Texas’ State Board of Education

On the night after the November 2 elections, Rebecca  Bell-Metereau and her husband Pierre had a two-for-one dinner special at Logan’s Roadhouse. Exhausted, but happy to have been involved in a campaign to unseat Republican Ken Mercer from his District 5 spot on the State Board of Education — however unsuccessfully — the two liberal arts professors settled in for night of TV. Having left a congratulatory message on her opponent’s voice mail and preparing to watch the news from the couch, Bell-Metereau considered the impeding budget crisis and recent politically motivated curriculum decisions made by the board. “The one I really feel for is Michael Soto. He’s gonna be a lone voice out there,” she told the Current.

Michael Soto, the Harvard-educated father of two who won a spot in District 3, has no illusions that the battle to reform the SBOE will be an easy one: “Unfortunately, too many board members have been openly hostile to public schools.” After the birth of his eldest son, he and his wife started paying close attention to public schools. “We’re the products of Texas public schools and we knew our sons would share that experience,” he said. The Trinity professor got into the race knowing there would only be a handful of Democrats running alongside him, and said he is well prepared to reach out to the other side in order to separate politics from the needs of the schools. “I am willing to collaborate with anyone who has our kids’ best interest at heart,” he said.

With Rene Nuñez of District 1 unseated by Republican challenger Carlos “Charlie” Garza, the 15 member State Board of Education went from five Democrats to four. Majority member Ken Mercer, who ran on a platform of getting rid of “‘rain forest’ or ‘feel good’ math” and emphasizing phonics, did not return phone calls requesting an interview. However, upon visiting his website, the first thing you notice is a YouTube video wherein the software engineer confronts accusations that under his watch the contributions of Hispanics would be more limited in state curriculum by listing a host of Latino names. Mercer looks into the camera and announces that the “Far Left, in their disregard for the military when looking for role models for our children, never even considered Hispanic recipients of the Medal of Honor.”

Meanwhile, the Board has been lampooned across the country from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to Discovermagazine.com for its attempts to shrink the role of Thomas Jefferson (for his coining of “Separation of Church and State”) while elevating the sentiments of  Confederate slave owner Jefferson Davis, deemphasizing evolution for creationism, and actively endeavoring to downplay any Muslim history in textbooks.  Bell-Metereau hoped, if she got in, “to develop a common ground with the Board, make the curriculum interesting and relevant to students, while listening to real teachers and scholars.”  While Mercer, as expressed via another YouTube video, believes that he is fighting back in a “culture war,” and that his “opponents are not our honest hardworking classroom teachers but the educational establishment.” And further, that “if the armies of the Far Left are allowed to rewrite and revise American history then its all over.”

However, if the textbooks start teaching a lot of bunk, Jon Marc Smith, a senior lecturer who has taught English for 10 years at Texas State University, places the blame squarely on the voters and a culture of anti-intellectualism. Smith, who feels he “can‘t teach literature without teaching history” and “can‘t teach history without teaching politics,” notices a  “weird knee-jerk reaction on the Right that refuses to acknowledge what other cultures outside of white America have done. On the one hand, Texas is much less provincial than it’s ever been … `but` we have people sort of bound and determined to be ‘know nothings.’” 

Every parent I spoke to — from a Republican business woman who yanked her two kids from a high school where the bullying had become too much, to a liberal waitress who homeschooled her daughter after a school bomb threat and has now placed her child in a charter school — has a vocal problem with Texas education. The solution is frequently to remove the child from the source of trouble.

Soto recognizes this lack of trust and knows he has his work cut out for him. “First we need to restore public confidence in how the State Board conducts its business,” he said. “Most important, we need to put the needs of Texas children ahead of divisive political posturing.” Soto feels that the real divisions on the board aren't between Democrats and Republicans, but “between those who want to support our schools and those who would rather inject political dogma into the classroom.”

Bell-Metereau, a Media Studies and English teacher at Texas State University for nearly 30 years, got involved with running for a seat on the SBOE because she felt a responsibility which bordered on a kind of maternal guilt. Her youngest daughter had “skated by in Texas public schools,” and when she got to college “was shocked at the kind of work required of her.” Bell-Metereau wanted to help do for other kids what she felt she had failed to do with her youngest: prepare them for the demands of higher education. “Assessments have become a mania. Half of the school year is spent trying to get prepared for tests, and we have lost sight of the subjects -- learning to love and enjoy and have some competence in the subjects. The tests should be a by product.”

Texas legislators are currently facing major economic cuts that will lead to fewer teachers, textbook shortages, and larger classrooms. All the while: “We are at the mercy of fifteen people who decide what gets taught and seem to have a disregard for educators. And incoming college students are simply not prepared for critical thinking,” said an instructional coach who has worked in the Texas school system for over 20 years and asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation.

“If the overworked teachers have any time and desire left, after covering what is required … they can teach on. And good luck to them.”