Why All Eyes are Now on the Often Ignored Texas Board of Education Races

All 15 seats are up for grabs in November, and one race in District 7 highlights how critical race theory has become a key issue

The State Board of Education seal hangs during a board meeting on January 29, 2019. (Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune)

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As political races go, candidates for the Texas State Board of Education are often overlooked, making their races a perennial wallflower in Texas politics.

But this year, after a seismic conservative shift erupted in local school board races in suburbs across the state, more eyes are on who will be elected to the board that dictates what should be in teachers’ lesson plans in Texas’ 1,200 public school districts. Parents in some of these districts have become a vocal force coming out of the pandemic, questioning everything from why and when schools should close to what books are appropriate to be in school libraries to how thorough history lessons should be.

“One thing that strikes me is that it mirrors what we’re seeing in local school board elections,” said Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

And thanks to redistricting — the post-U.S. census exercise in which boundaries for State Board of Education districts, along with legislative and congressional districts, are redrawn every decade — all 15 seats on the education board are up for grabs.

While nine incumbents — six Republicans and three Democrats — are seeking reelection, many close observers of these often-ignored races are watching to see if the board moves further to the right or whether incumbents will be able to win back their seats. A total of 33 candidates — 14 Republicans, 11 Democrats, two independents and three Libertarians — are vying for those 15 seats.

Deen said that like local school board elections, state education board races are low turnout, so candidates try to focus on hot-button issues.

“The State Board of Education is not new to social movements,” Deen said. “What has come back again is the intensity of the debate in this education space.”

And if there’s anything to help challengers stand out, it’s a new Texas that went into effect last year and bars teachers from subjecting students to anything that makes them “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” based on their race or sex. The measure was designed to counter what conservatives term “critical race theory” — a broad term used to describe what they see as indoctrination: attempts by a school to offer a more comprehensive look at American history.

In truth, critical race theory is a college-level discipline that examines why racism continues in American law and culture decades after the civil rights movement in the United States. It is not taught in elementary or secondary schools in Texas.

But that hasn’t stopped conservative candidates from keeping an “anti-CRT” plank from their state education board campaign literature.

Two Republican incumbents on the state board lost their primaries to candidates promising to get critical race theory out of classrooms. Jay Johnson lost his primary in District 15, in the Panhandle, and Sue Melton-Malone lost hers in District 14, covering parts of North Texas..

The case of a third Republican board member, Matt Robinson, also highlights this more conservative push. Robinson did not seek reelection in District 7, which covers part of the Gulf Coast, because he didn’t think he could beat challenger Julie Pickren, who has made so-called critical race theory a central part of her campaign. Robinson has endorsed the Democrat in the race, Dan Hochman. Pickren did not respond to a request for comment.

“I could tell that I wasn’t gonna win reelection in the Republican primary,” Robinson said in September. “The State Board of Education moved quite a bit to the right in the last two or three years, and it’s just responded to how the Republican Party in Texas is.”

Many Republicans running for places on the board won their primaries in March by touting as a top priority how they will prevent the teaching of “critical race theory.” Conservatives at local school boards spent an unprecedented amount of money and won elections this spring based on their opposition to districts offering a more inclusive curriculum to students.

The issue over what conservatives call critical race theory has been in play up and down the ballot — and outside of Texas, including a GOP victory for the Virginia governor, who campaigned on a pledge to ban the teaching of critical race theory.

Hochman, the Democratic candidate in the District 7 race, said he fears that the board will shift more to the right if someone like Pickren gets elected. As someone with 25 years of education experience, he believes it’s his duty to do something about it.

“I need to block those attempts at ruining public education in this state,” he said.

The new board will have a large influence over potential changes to the social studies curriculum in the state’s more than 8,000 public schools. Before the elections, the State Board of Education decided to delay updating the statewide social studies curriculum standards until at least 2025.

The board’s decision came after conservative lawmakers and parents testified that the proposed updates were influenced by critical race theory and didn’t include enough “American exceptionalism” or Christianity.

Board members like Republicans Will Hickman and Pam Little deny that they were pressured to delay the overhaul of the social studies curriculum. Instead, they said they felt some of the content proposed was not age-appropriate and they wanted to keep the current course schedule of requiring Texas history in the fourth and seventh grades. The proposals before the board this summer would have eliminated the current schedule. Hickman is seeking reelection in District 6, covering parts of the Houston area, and Little is running in District 12, covering parts of North Texas.

The board updates the statewide standards for the state’s 5.5 million students of all grades about once every decade.

For decades, conservative Christians have monitored and lobbied against more diverse or comprehensive classroom instruction both as advocates before the board and as elected members. Most recently, between 2006 and 2010, a Christian conservative bloc on the state board, led by then-board member Don McLeroy, inserted its ideals into history standards, such as questioning evolution and including the biblical figure Moses in history classes.

“We are likely to see an even more conservative State Board of Education next year,” said Carisa Lopez, senior political director at the Texas Freedom Network, which has fought for more inclusive classroom materials since the group’s inception in 1995.

But conservative organizations like Texas Values celebrated the delay of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, describing it as a vote to “reject Critical Race Theory.”

“Now, the State Board of Education has time to get it right and consider better TEKS that will continue to teach about patriotic historical values and Judeo-Christian heritage in American and Texas History,” said Mary Elizabeth Castle, senior policy adviser for Texas Values, in a statement following the vote to delay.

Because the 15 races are tied to specific districts, Deen said for Republicans, it’s not about getting people motivated to vote, but making sure the candidates appeal to the voters.

In this case, being firmly against critical race theory, however they define it, is something conservatives value, she said.

In District 15, Republican challenger Aaron Kinsey ousted GOP incumbent Johnson in the March primary. Kinsey was endorsed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry. Kinsey also received a donation from conservative megadonor Tim Dunn and large donations from the Charter Schools Now political action committee, the political arm of the Texas Public Charter Schools Association.

Kinsey has said that critical race theory is taught under different guises and that Texas needs teachers who can identify how it is being rebranded. He is running unopposed.

In District 2, which covers part of the Gulf Coast, Republican LJ Francis won the Republican primary for the open seat and based his campaign on banning critical race theory from schools, claiming that “woke liberals” are pushing a critical race theory agenda. He faces Democrat Victor Perez.

In District 11, which covers parts of Tarrant and Parker counties, Republican incumbent Pat Hardy won the nomination. She was first elected in 2002. Going into the primaries, Hardy made it a priority to get critical race theory and the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” out of classrooms. Texas law already prohibits teaching about “The 1619 Project.”

Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network, Texas Public Charter Schools Association, New York Times and University of Texas – Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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