A series of controversial Facebook posts have aroused public concern about the race for a seat on the State Board of Education representing Northeast Texas, and the incident has drawn attention to the changing dynamics of Texas's influence on education policy nationwide.
Mary Lou Bruner, the woman running for the Texas seat, has taken to Facebook to level a series of accusations at her political opponents. She has accused President Obama of prostituting himself for drugs, claimed that Democrats assassinated President Kennedy, called Islam inhumane, libeled climate change as a Marxist plot, and argued that the United Nations has a plan to reduce the world's population by two-thirds.
"If he's on drugs [President Obama], then how did he pay for them?" Bruner said in an interview when asked to address her previous statements. "There's two ways that people on welfare pay for drugs – they prostitute themselves or they steal." Bruner is a retired teacher kindergarten teacher who taught for 35 years, and claims that she would help Texas get back to the basics of education.
Statewide, the Texas State Board of Education has wideranging influence. Board members are tasked with setting standards for students, so they wield influence over subjects like science, history, and English — subjects that can ignite fierce ideological debates among policymakers over how best to teach them.
Bruner's opponent, Keven Ellis, another retired teacher, says that the state board is not a place to weigh in on ideological matters. "I think it's the state board of education's job to make sure the reviewers are qualified, that they come from a broad spectrum of experiences, and that the board listens to that and not get personal political agendas involved." Columnists like Christopher Bruhchli of CounterPunch and Mark Reagan of Sacurrent have written critical pieces about Bruner in which they document her bombastic statements.
Christopher Connelly of Kera News writes that, historically speaking, Texas has been the "800-pound gorilla in American education." Thanks to the sheer volume of students in Texas, textbook companies formed a habit of seeking approval in Texas first and then shipping their textbooks to children across the country. Classrooms in the Midwest and South often ended up with material approved by the Texas Board of Education.
The dominance Texas exercises on the textbook industry is changing, however. Firstly, schools aren't buying textbooks as much as they used to, and are turning instead to things like tablets, interactive lessons, and online resources. Furthermore, individual school districts now have more autonomy in determining where to purchase their education materials.
"The buying power of Texas, while still good in terms of pure numbers and the size of the market, changed tremendously because now there were more players in the market," says David Anderson, a veteran of the textbook industry and former curriculum director at the Teas Education Agency.
Ironically, the implementation of Common Core standards has also sharply reduced the influence of Texas in education. Texas refused to adopt the standards, so the forty states that did turned elsewhere for textbooks to align with the national standards. Additionally, publishers began designing material that aligned with the standards laid out by Common Core rather than catering to the interests and needs of the Texas education system.