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2 New Members Of 15 Member State Board of Education Could Push Politics To Center

A voting device used by members of the State Board of Education
Photo by Nathan Bernier for KUT News
A voting device used by members of the State Board of Education

Culture war issues might figure less prominently in Texas education politics after the five freshmen members of the State Board of Education are sworn in tomorrow. Two of those five are moderate Republicans replacing socially conservative members of the board who often voted as part of a bloc on controversial issues.

Because religious conservatives did not increase their numbers on the board in the last election, their voting bloc has effectively been reduced from seven members to five.

Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), a lifelong educator with a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas, replaces Cynthia Dunbar (R-Richmond), a socially conservative member who once suggested President Obama sympathizes with terrorists.

Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant), an Austin lawyer and lobbyist, replaces Don McLeroy (R-College Station), a de facto spokesman for the now-diminished socially conservative faction on the State Board. McLeroy successfully led the charge to require that students question the strengths and weaknesses of the evolutionary theory.

"I think [the new makeup of the SBOE] will change the overall tenor of the debate," Ratliff told KUT News. "I'm hopeful we will see less time spent on meaningless resolutions, and really get down to, is what we're doing at the board meetings, at the committee meetings adding value to public education and not trying to make headlines."

Some of the national media coverage of State Board controversies were not helpful in improving outcomes in classrooms, Ratliff said.

"Some have viewed it as a shining example of them winning. Others have viewed it as a shining example of what's wrong with the board, and I’m in the latter," Ratliff said.

"I think it has shown that our focus has been on fighting the fight, rather than on doing what's right," he said.

Outgoing State Board member Don McLeroy, a friendly yet highly controversial figure who rarely shied from openly discussing his views even with his fiercest political opponents, admitted to KUT last year that the influence of what he described as "the religious right" on the SBOE had waned with the latest election outcome.

Still, McLeroy said he was proud of his accomplishments and the legacy he has left on curriculum standards that will be used for ten years in Texas classrooms.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.