February 19, 2013
With all due respect to Congress, nobody’s nailed down the “politics at its worst” thing quite like Texas’ State Board of Education.
Our board has one policy area to not screw up: what kids learn in Texas schools. And yet, for years, it’s been wrought by conflicts that have been initiated, in my estimation, by folks who care more about propagating what they themselves believe rather than what kids actually need to know.
The dynamics have gotten so bad that two legislative sessions ago, in 2009, the Senate actually busted the Governor’s appointee to chair the board. Last session, there was so little support for the Governor’s chair that she didn’t even get a vote. There’s even a PBS documentary about it called “The Revisionaries,” which you can watch online until Feb. 27.
Well, yesterday, the Senate Nominations committee, on which I’m the only Democrat, took up the nomination of Barbara Cargill, the third nominee for SBOE Chair that the Governor’s given us in the last three sessions.
And the committee recommended her confirmation. Unanimously.
As I said yesterday, this was a tough vote, and it’s one I thought about a lot.
Chairwoman Cargill and I will always disagree on some big issues. We think about and approach politics and public education – at least on some fundamentals – from different places.
But I used the nominations process and my position on the committee to ask her important questions and to be sure we got answers to those questions. She’s made the commitment – to me, the Senate and the people of Texas – that she won’t allow her personal politics to dictate how she leads the board or what kids learn in schools.
Specifically, there were four big commitments I got from her during last week’s hearing that promise she’ll do her job in a way that’s less political – and better for children and schools – than either of her previous two predecessors (or, significantly, the likely alternatives that the Governor might appoint if she’s rejected):
1. No creationism in school, no pressuring publishers: Texas deserves a (to borrow a phrase) fair and balanced Board of Education chair, and Cargill has agreed to work in this way. Regardless of her personal beliefs, she assured us that if creationism is going to be taught, it should be taught at home or in church . . . not in Texas textbooks. Critically, she also pledged not to use her position to put pressure on national publishers or try to force them to teach a single set of beliefs.
2. No political litmus tests: Cargill admitted she’d made a mistake in the past when she applied a political litmus test (i.e. “Is this person a conservative”) to potential curriculum experts and fellow board members. She said she no longer asks potential experts about their political beliefs, and she spoke to the importance of reconciliation and communication with her colleagues. She also said clearly that she values diversity among the board members and diversity of opinion on the Board.
3. Better definition of an expert: She also promised to clarify and strengthen the definition of an expert through SBOE rules. That’s a big deal: right now, you’re considered an “expert” (at least for curriculum-writing purposes) if you have nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in a particular subject. We all love Texas schools, and I hope we all agree that Texas can do a better job establishing basic education standards for all of its schoolchildren.
4. Board transparency: Cargill pledged to make the Board more open and accountable. This is a big priority for me, and I truly believe it will pay off in better a better education for Texas kids. I’ll work with her and with other Board members to see to it that this happens – and she committed to do the same. I also have legislation to improve transparency on the board.
I’ve often preached the importance of throwing away labels. It’s my most important ground rule for governing.
This is a case, I believe, where it’s better for everyone – and especially our kids – if we put aside political preconceptions and consider that the board is better under Chairwoman Cargill than it has been in the past, and better than it could be under other potential appointees.
Regardless of the alternatives, from several conversations with her and from her testimony last week, I do believe Cargill approaches her role as chair very seriously. She seems to be working to lead the board in good faith, and I appreciate that.
She didn’t answer every question perfectly, and there’s plenty for people to legitimately point to as revealing ideas and approaches they – and I – disagree with.
Frankly, I naturally wish every nominee would agree with me on all (or at least most) issues. I wish each appointee would be able to eliminate everyone’s fear about how they will serve.
But that’s not realistic, particularly in a political environment. We have a nominations process that’s meant to mitigate that fear and protect our state from harm. Because of that process, two SBOE chairs rightly weren’t confirmed. That process also allowed me to ask hard questions of Chairwoman Cargill and have her make public promises about how she’ll serve.
We all must work to hold her accountable for what she’s committed to do. And I’m looking forward to working with her to make sure the Board operates fairly and in the best interest of Texas kids.
We’ve given the SBOE a lot of responsibility for our curriculum and Texas’ future. I take this responsibility seriously and hope she will too. Her testimony gives me sufficient confidence that the process will make her a better chair than she would have been otherwise. I’m also confident we’ll all be watching her actions closely.