DALLAS - The ideological divide that has marked the Texas State Board of Education reached a fevered pitch three years ago when an intense fight over how to teach evolution put the state in the national spotlight.
The board dominated by a large social conservative bloc eventually reached a compromise that dropped a requirement for Texas public schools to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution and encouraged teachers to consider "all sides" of scientific theories.
The debate could heat up again next year when the board is set to adopt new science textbooks for classrooms across the state. But all 15 of the board's spots are on the ballot in the Nov. 6 elections, a chance for voters to decide how much conservative influence they want on a panel responsible for establishing the state's public school curriculum.
The board has been marked not by a partisan divide, but by an ideological one including attempts by social conservatives to elevate conservative figures in history lessons. There are four Democrats and 11 Republicans on the board, with six of those Republicans considered social conservatives.
"The choice that you have is between candidates who are going to listen to, take into consideration what actual educators and education experts say, versus folks that discount it and try to use the education system as a political indoctrination tool," said Monty Exter, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "At this point we're really talking about social conservatives versus moderates."
No matter the election results, the face of the board is sure to change because five Republican and two Democratic incumbents aren't on the ballot.
Among the incumbent social conservatives locked in a competitive race is Republican Carlos "Charlie" Garza, who faces Democrat Martha Dominguez for the District 1 seat that represents a large swath spanning from El Paso to Laredo.
Dominguez, director of support personnel in El Paso's Ysleta school district, said she offers voters a chance to elect someone who is running as "a student advocate, not a political party advocate."
Garza, an assistant principal in a high school in the Clint school district just outside El Paso, said he's confident his work since being elected two years ago and the commitment he's shown to the district, including attending school board meetings, will get him re-elected even in the Democratic-leaning district.
He said his job on the board is not about the political affiliation, "it's about children." He added, "Our job is to ensure our kids are critical thinkers."
Other education board races include six in which non-incumbent Republicans and Democrats are facing off. Education advocates say whoever wins those races will be in for quite a heated debate when the panel considers which science textbooks to adopt next year.
"There will be creationists on the board who will be looking for language they think undermines evolution," said Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog of the far right. "And there will be those of us who want science textbooks based on science."
And while a new law means that schools are no longer restricted from using state money for books not approved by the board, Quinn said he expects that the approval from the board will still carry weight with districts.
The board's responsibilities include establishing the state's public school curriculum, approving textbooks and managing the state's permanent school fund. Because all seats are up for election this year, newly elected members will draw numbers at the first meeting and eight will get four-year terms and seven will get two-year terms. After that, they'll have four-year terms.
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