Thursday, May 3, 2012

SBOE Faceoff in District 12

Recently, I offered my opinions on the four candidates for the GOP nomination for the State Board of Education (SBOE) District 12 seat.
George Clayton, the incumbent, received my (reluctant) nod.

Tuesday night, all four candidates, plus Lois Parrott, who is uncontested in seeking the Democrat-ic nomination, had a chance to impress me in person at a forum jointly sponsored by the Leagues of Women Voters of Plano/Collin County, Dallas and Richardson, the Greater Dallas Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Women's Council of Dallas County.

After the jump, how the candidates fared in changing my mind.

Most importantly, George Clayton blew off his chance to impress me. He was a no-show. He forfeits my lukewarm, wishy-washy, non-endorsement endorsement. Woody Allen said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." That leaves Clayton with a ceiling of 20%, which won't win any elections. This, like his campaign website, is like he doesn't even care.

It's a good thing that we weren't playing a drinking game during introductions, because if I had to down a shot every time Tincy Miller said the word "conservative," I'd be passed out under the table before the first round of answers was over. Drinks all around for Miller being the only candidate to mention Ronald Reagan.

Lois Parrott started strong, saying in her introduction that schools deserve more funding from the state, but Parrott had no staying power over the course of the evening. There was no fire there. Even though she was the only Democrat against three Republicans, she didn't give a single answer that stood apart from all the others.

Pam Little showed the most independence from party. For one example, she said she disagreed with the cuts to school funding in the last legislative session and will resist imposing unfunded mandates on schools through curriculum standards. She had another flash of independence later regarding religion. Read on for that.

Gail Spurlock is definitely not on the side of public schools. She supported cutting public school funding, saying the cuts were necessary. She blamed local school districts for any pain, saying all you heard about was teachers being cut, not administrators. (She must not have talked to the Richardson school board (RISD) to learn all they did to cut costs elsewhere to minimize the impact on classrooms.) She said there's a passive-aggressive resistance to reforms from the education community. She said we should quit asking the state legislature to fix problems (which raises the question why she herself is seeking a state office to, I suppose, fix things). She said she wanted to home school her own children, but she needed to work outside the home instead. She said the Richardson schools failed her son, whom she put in private school and gave some home-schooling instead.

Miller had the highlight of the night in her impassioned defense of the Permanent School Fund against raiding by the legislature and against scams by other SBOE board members. Miller showed the most knowledge about this important responsibility of the SBOE. (Read The Wheel's account of the 2010 SBOE candidate forum for more on the controversy over the SBOE's handling of the $26 billion Permanent School Fund.)

On Evolution versus Creationism, not surprisingly, the three Republicans struck out and the Democrat hit a home run.

  • Spurlock said she didn't know enough about Creationism to have an opinion (leading me to wonder why ignorance didn't slow her down on other matters), but she said that current standards require that all sides of the issue be taught (in fact, current law forbids schools from teaching Creationism as science).

  • Miller didn't express an opinion on Evolution versus Creationism, but called the science standards that the SBOE adopted excellent and claimed that everyone, even scientists, agreed with them. (Miller should be credited for brokering compromise language in the standards that a majority of the SBOE in 2009 could live with, but that language eliminated references to the 14 billion year old universe and the evolution of organisms in the fossil record, hardly what most scientists would consider excellent. A review of state standards nationwide lumped Texas in with states rated "mediocre to awful.")

  • Little said that Creationism should not be taught, and that Evolution should be taught as theory, not fact (suggesting that Little doesn't understand what "theory" means in science), and students should be taught to question evolution (should we also teach students to question the theory of gravity, the theory of electromagnetism, and the germ theory of disease?). Little announced that scientists were making good progress on merging religion and science (which probably comes as a surprise to most scientists, who, at most, will diplomatically say that science and religion deal with different questions).

  • Parrott had the best answer and it took her only one sentence to give it: Creationism should not be taught in public schools.

On the influence one's religion will have on their decisions in office, there was a notable split. Miller spoke first, saying she's a Christian, then gave a muddled answer about how that would affect her decision-making. Spurlock said absolutely her religion will have a big impact on her actions. Parrott, in another succinct answer, said her religion will not play a part in her decision-making. She then said something that has somehow become controversial in America: she believes in separation of church and state. Little said she also believes in separation of church and state. I did not see that break with the party line coming.

All of the candidates regretted the gradual stripping of power from the SBOE over the last decade or two, but none of them seemed to recognize that's not all due to power grabs by other players. Some of it is because of the dysfunction of the SBOE itself, as it moved far right in the culture wars.

None of the candidates were fans of standardized testing. But none of them seemed to want to get rid of it, either. I don't know of any one, not just these four, who really knows what should be done. I don't claim to know the solution.

With that, I throw up my hands and leave it to the voters to decide among these candidates. I can't work up enthusiasm to support any of them. Still, I do admire their willingness to become a public punching bag and serve in this unpaid, thankless, time-consuming office.

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