Bell-Metereau, left, and Jennings, right.
In 2010, Judy Jennings and Rebecca Bell-Metereau both ran for seats on the Texas State Board of Education. They lost. In 2011, a well-known Republican political operative sued them for a political ad they ran in the 2010 race. This year, they're running for the SBOE yet again – Jennings for District 10 and Bell-Metereau for District 5. Both are career educators with extensive experience in the field, and would be tremendous assets to our state board of education.
Why, after defeats and prohibitively expensive, ongoing litigation that could drain anyone's war chest, would anyone subject herself to this again? And why would there be lawsuits filed over a race for the State Board of Education?Two key things answer the first question: Jennings and Bell-Metereau themselves, and a brief history of the SBOE.
Jennings and Bell-Metereau are educators. Bell-Metereau is Professor of English and Film and directs the Media Studies Minor at Texas State University. She was Visiting Professor at the University of Nebraska and University of St. Louis in Senegal, Africa, and worked on helping first-year students transition from high school to college at Texas State.
Jennings is similarly credentialed in education and education policy. She was a teaching assistant at the University of Texas at Austin, and earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology while she was working at the Texas Education Agency on accountability issues. Her resume boasts her specialty in interpreting assessment data, and specifically her role as co-project manager of the Texas Education Agency's (TEA) Texas High School Redesign and Restructuring Grant Program.
The SBOE would seem to have a fairly mundane mission and would seem to be a natural fit for two career educators. The past few years have borne out neither of those assumptions.
By its own telling, the SBOE plays the following role:
“Establishing policy and providing leadership for the Texas public school system are the responsibilities of the State Board of Education. By adopting policies and setting standards for educational programs, the board provides the direction necessary to enable Texas public schools to prepare today's schoolchildren for a successful future.”
“Together the board, the commissioner, and the agency facilitate the operation of a vast public school system consisting of 1,237 school districts and charter schools, more than 8,400 campuses, more than 659,000 educators and other employees, and more than 4.8 million schoolchildren.”
The SBOE's functions are divided into three core committees – 1) curriculum and instruction, 2) oversight of the Permanent School Fund, and 3) school initiatives (e.g.: authorizing new charter schools). Drawing the most scrutiny have been the committees on curriculum and oversight of the Permanent School Fund. The Permanent School Fund is a $25 billion endowment that funds public schools.
Curriculum for grade school, junior high, and high school should be fairly straightforward and immune to controversy. Over the last decade, however, politics crept into the functions and decision making of the SBOE curriculum committee. Conservative members felt that the curriculum in public schools – and academia itself – reflected liberal bias and needed a correction.
And correct they did. By the time the controversy reached a fever pitch in 2010, several subject areas had been or were being revised – English and language arts, science, and social studies and history.
In 2008, the SBOE revised the English and language arts curriculum. The curriculum change was in essence a “back to basics” approach. Board members wanted to separate grammar education from building skills in reading comprehension. The new curriculum also emphasized learning by phonics. Supporters advocated these changes because they threw English and language arts education back to American education methods of the 1950s when they were in school. Opponents wanted to block these changes because they threw English and language arts education back to American education methods of the 1950s.
At the time, the Houston Chronicle reported criticisms that the standards “ignore[d]at least 50 years of research on grammar instruction.” The standards also reflected a time when success in college (and presumably reading comprehension) was not as directly tied to finding meaningful employment, or employment at all.
Bell-Metereau, for her part, called the changes “a hatchet job on the language arts curriculum.” She went on, specifically objecting to the revived emphasis on phonics. “English is not a particularly phonetic language,” she said. As a result, this type of English instruction is “particularly hard for second language learners,” and “especially for native Spanish speakers, for example. It was a move backwards and not an improvement.”
The curriculum revisions continued in 2009 with science and unabated with history and social studies in 2010. As the Wall Street Journal explained in 2009, the SBOE “approved a science curriculum that opens the door for teachers and textbooks to raise doubts about evolution.”
The WSJ further explained:
“For instance, they want textbooks to suggest the theory of evolution is undercut by fossils that show some organisms — such as ferns — haven't changed much over millions of years. They also want texts to discuss the explosion of life forms during the Cambrian Era as inconsistent with the incremental march of evolution.”
The Big Bang and the age of the universe, considered by the mainstream science community to be well-settled issues, were also opened up for debate in the revisions to the curriculum.
In early 2010, with several members of the board already voted out in primaries, but still serving out the remainders of their respective terms, the SBOE made changes to the history and social studies curriculum, drawing global attention and derision.
Jon Stewart and The Daily Show weighed in, naturally. Even Al-Jazeera sent over correspondents to investigate. The New York Times filled with reporting and op-ed pieces.
Thomas Jefferson disappeared from the curriculum as an Enlightenment thinker, reportedly because he had advocated for and believed in the separation of church and state. Instead, the list of Enlightenment thinkers included John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Blackstone, John Calvin, and Thomas Aquinas. Never mind that Aquinas died in 1274, and the Enlightenment did not begin until the 17th Century.
By the time of the final vote in May, Jefferson was ultimately restored to the curriculum, but other changes stayed put. On May 25, 2010, The New York Times concisely summarized the more notable alterations:
“In what looks like an effort to justify injecting more religion into government, it voted to require students to examine why the founding fathers protected religious freedom – and how that approach contrasts with “separation of church and state.” The board also required third graders to “explain how government regulations and taxes impact consumer cost,” presumably to get them off to an early start in fearing government. Older students will have to “evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty” and, under an earlier change, analyze the “unintended consequences” of such programs as the Great Society and affirmative action.”
During the contentious revision process, a March 12, 2010, New York Times article reported:
“Dr. [Don] McLeroy, a dentist by training, pushed through a change to the teaching of the civil rights movement to ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also made sure that textbooks would mention the votes in Congress on civil rights legislation, which Republicans supported.”
“Mr. Bradley won approval for an amendment saying students should study “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation. He also won approval for an amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.”
Other changes that worked their way through the process but were ultimately struck down included recharacterizing the slave trade as the “Atlantic triangular trade” and referring to the president as “Barack Hussein Obama” when there was no real precedent for employing a president's middle name, except in such cases as John Adams and John Quincy Adams where using the middle name actually conferred some sort of instructional value.
Bell-Metereau saw problems with this at the time. “You explain history in terms of various interests; you don't pick winners and losers,” she says. “You try to describe as accurately as you can.”
She goes on: “There was no clear logic to why different figures were stuck in different places – no guiding principle. It was arbitrary. [The Board] even removed the term capitalism because of perceived negative connotation and simply inserted what was politically correct from their perspective.”
Board votes were along party lines. That same March 12, 2010, New York Times article stated the following:
“”We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.””
Jennings cited these agendas as part of her motivation to run for the Board for the first time in 2010. “I realized we were once again in a situation where we could have another Cynthia Dunbar on the board.” Jennings was concerned with people pushing alternative agendas on the Board, other than education.
Notably, then-outgoing member Cynthia Dunbar had authored a book entitled One Nation Under God and had characterized public education as “a subtly deceptive tool of perversion.”
In response, Jennings flatly states: “Someone who doesn't believe that public schools are valuable should not be making policy for 5 million public school students.”
“I work with teachers a lot. Most of my work goes to support teachers, so I'm in schools often, I see the struggles schools have, see the problems they have. I felt strongly that I wanted to help be part of whatever we could do to further the education of children.”
For her, it was important that the Board had someone who had the best interests of children in mind, rather than an ideological agenda. She made the decision and in 2010 entered the race for SBOE.
For more on the ensuing race, the ad, the lawsuit, and this year's race, check back next week for our ongoing coverage.