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Change Is Afoot for Polarized Texas School Board

You may love or hate the Texas school board—and it does tend to generate some pretty strong feelings—but whatever your views of the elected body, one thing is certain: It won't be the same come January. At least four of the board's 15 members are vacating their seats as a result of either planned retirements or forced ones (e.g., primary defeats).

The board has been generating a lot of heat lately, with its impassioned and contentious debate over teaching social studies. Led by a bloc of social conservatives, the board in late May approved new standards in that subject area on a party-line vote.

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Several political analysts tell me the panel's political balance of power may shift next year as a result of the upcoming changes, with the social conservatives holding less sway.

I talk a little about this in a new story for EdWeek about the final social studies standards, as well as calls by critics to revisit the standards and even rein in the board's authority (or abolish the panel altogether). But as often happens, some rich material I gathered ended up on the cutting-room floor.

So for those interested in a bit of Texas "inside baseball" that could mean a lot for the direction of a state board that's pretty influential and has been the focus of national attention, here goes.

First, here is what we know for sure about what's ahead for the board, which now has 10 Republicans and five Democrats. One Republican and one Democrat are retiring, and two other Republicans won't be returning because they lost in the state primary.

Analysts say the board currently has seven social conservatives who mainly run the show. They usually attract one or more of the more moderate Republicans to win a majority, and in some cases even attract Democrats.

Arguably, the most notable departures from the board in terms of a potential shift of the political dynamic are two outspoken conservatives: Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar. McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, Texas, who was the board's chairman until the state senate refused to reconfirm him in 2009, was narrowly defeated in the GOP primary by Thomas Ratliff, a moderate Republican (and Texas lobbyist). Dunbar—who authored a 2008 book, "One Nation Under God: How the Left Is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great"—is stepping down, and the candidate that she and virtually all the other staunch conservatives on the board endorsed to replace her was defeated in a Republican runoff by Marsha Farney. (Yes, I could easily get bogged down with tons of asides in this blog post, but here's one I feel worth mentioning. In her book, Dunbar apparently calls public education a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion" and argues that the establishment of public schools was both "unconstitutional" and "tyrannical.")

The role Farney chooses to play on the board could be critical to the political dynamic next year. Some observers who aren't big fans of the current board are holding out hope that she'll prove to be more of a moderate. I tried, unsuccessfully, to reach her for my story. Farney describes herself as a "common sense conservative." Also, she's "100 percent pro-life," a point prominently declared on her campaign website (for the state board of education).

Meanwhile, in what several people told me was the biggest surprise of the primary, Republican Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, who is not considered part of the social conservative bloc, was defeated by Dallas English teacher George Clayton. Analysts predict that he will likely prove a very independent voice on the board.

The one Democrat who we know won't serve on the board next year is Rick Agosto, as he's announced plans to retire. I should point out that he apparently sided with the social conservatives on some key votes when the board previously took up science and English/language arts standards. His expected replacement in the safely Democratic district is Michael Soto, an English professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, who won the Democratic primary. By most accounts, Soto appears far less likely to align with conservatives. That said, despite any earlier alliances Agosto forged with conservatives, he ended up being one of the most outspoken critics on the state board of the final social studies standards. On the final day of deliberations in May, he grabbed a trash can and said that's where the new standards belong.

Texas political analyst Calvin Jillson from Southern Methodist University in Dallas said he thinks the changes to the board's makeup in 2010 could be important.

"We will see some movement in a moderate direction," he told me, even as he cautioned, "it will still be Republican-dominated, will be conservative."

David Anderson, a Texas lobbyist and a former curriculum director at the state education agency, seems to agree.

"When one group on the board goes from a sure seven votes to a sure five, that does make a difference," he told me. "Each member of the board will be analyzing where he or she is relative to the entire board as they go into January 2011."

But Republican board member David Bradley isn't convinced that much will change. For one, he suggests that Marcia Farney could well prove a strong ally to the social conservatives. Also, Bradley believes that one of the incumbent Democrats, Rene Nunez, will face a serious challenge from Republican Carlos "Charlie" Garza.

"That is a swing district," he said. "I don't think anybody has paid attention to that one, but given the voters' dissatisfaction with Democrats in the upcoming November election, I think that district is in play."

Stepping back, he concludes of the board in 2010: "It may be a loss of one [conservative], or it may hold even."

In any case, 2012 could bring still more change. Next year, the state is required to redraw political voting districts to reflect the latest U.S. Census data. And then in 2012, all 15 members of the board will be on the ballot.

Richard Murray, an expert on Texas politics at the University of Houston, said the changes resulting from redistricting are likely to disadvantage social conservatives. He explained that the areas with large concentrations of such constituents have seen little population growth, while urban and Hispanic areas have grown substantially.

"Big changes will have to be made on the board," he predicts. "This was kind of the final opportunity for the unusually strong socially conservative bloc."

For his part, lobbyist Anderson argues that the redistricting could create a new Democratic district representing Travis County, which includes Austin, a liberal island, but because of previous Republican redistricting has been sliced up and is currently represented by social conservatives on the board.

Further, Anderson suggests that the district Ratliff will represent may become more strongly moderate, making it harder for a McLeroy-style Republican to challenge him. And Anderson says that the redistricting may open up one other district now seen as conservative-leaning such that a moderate Republican could succeed.

However, Jillson is not persuaded that redistricting will produce any meaningful change for the time being.

"Over a period of decades, Hispanics will continue to increase their share of the population and register to vote at higher levels," he said. "But I don't expect a short-term impact from these demographic changes on these districts. ... It's a longer-term process than just the raw demographics suggest."

Photo: Don McLeroy, a Republican on the Texas board of education, listens during a May meeting on the social studies standards. Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP

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