Republicans maintain majority on Texas education board with three seats too close to call

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The Texas State Board of Education sets curriculum standards for Texas public schools, and its makeup will change after Tuesday's election. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Democrats appeared poised to gain one seat on the Republican-dominated State Board of Education early Wednesday morning, with tight races in all three they hoped to flip.

With the final votes still being counted around the state, Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a Texas State University professor, was leading Republican Lani Popp, a Northside Independent School District speech pathologist, in District 5. Incumbent Ken Mercer, a Republican who held the seat for 14 years, decided not to run for reelection in the district, which picks up communities along the Interstate 35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin and stretches into the Hill Country.

But Republicans appeared poised to keep control of two other seats Texas Democrats wanted to flip this year. Republican Will Hickman, an intellectual property lawyer, led Democrat Michelle Palmer, an Aldine ISD history teacher, in the District 6 seat vacated by Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican and former board chair. The district stretches from West Houston to the northwestern edge of Harris County.

And Republican incumbent Tom Maynard, led Democrat Marsha Burnett-Webster, a retired teacher and college administrator, in the District 10 seat, which runs northeast of Austin and includes suburban and more rural communities.

The board determines what millions of Texas public school students learn in classrooms and is responsible for adopting textbooks, changing curriculum standards and approving new charter school operators. In past years, board meetings have been a lightning rod for national attention, due to dramatic debates about racist ethnic studies textbook proposals, abstinence-focused sex education standards and creationist biology standards.

Currently, the 15-member education board seats 10 Republicans and five Democrats — with eight seats in play this year.

Experts say the board’s political dynamic will still remain conservative after this election, though less radical than in decades past. “The board continues to be a problem-solving board and doesn’t split toward ideological lines like it did toward the ’90s or the first decade of this century,” said David Anderson, an education lobbyist at Hillco Partners who has watched the board for years. “This has been the best elected board we have had in 45 years.”

Of the eight seats in play this year, four Republican incumbents stepped down and four incumbents ran for reelection, including three Republicans and one Democrat. Incumbents Keven Ellis and Sue Melton-Malone beat their challengers to keep their seats, according to results from Decision Desk HQ. Georgina Pérez, a Democratic incumbent, was leading her opponent in District 1 early Wednesday morning.

Republican Audrey Young, a Nacogdoches ISD administrator, had no Democratic challenger in District 8 and will replace fellow Republican Barbara Cargill, who stepped down.

According to Decision Desk HQ, Republican Jay Johnson, a retired dentist and former Pampa ISD board member, defeated Democrat John Betancourt, a former Amarillo ISD board member, in District 15, where Republican Marty Rowley stepped down.

The District 5 race brought unwanted attention to the board earlier this year when conspiracy theorist Robert Morrow almost beat Popp in the Republican primary. Every member of the board rallied against Morrow, who has a long history of racist and sexist comments, and he lost the runoff.

Mercer, the outgoing incumbent whose conservative record has included arguments for teaching abstinence as the main form of contraception in health lessons, endorsed Popp, who has been an educator for almost three decades. Popp also picked up the support of Texas Values, a conservative statewide advocacy group, which recently urged the board to adopt abstinence-focused sex education.

Bell-Metereau unsuccessfully ran against Mercer in 2010, 2012 and 2016. "It's really all about demographics," she told The Texas Tribune Tuesday afternoon. "We've had so many people move into the area, and they've tended to be better educated, younger and more diverse."

Her priority is to include more climate science in the standards schools must teach students, since the issue is "life and death for the planet" and controversial on the board. "My goal is to try and convince the board to look at some of these details and make sure that we get the best curriculum that we can manage," she said.

The board is weeks away from revising Texas' sex education policy, its first attempt to do so since 1997. The newly elected board will be responsible for adopting new health and sex education textbooks and other instructional materials based on that policy, which school districts may opt to use.