Several Texas Republicans against “critical race theory” advance in State Board of Education primary races

Students and teachers walk between classes at Blanco Vista Elementary School in San Marcos on Aug. 23, 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Several Republican State Board of Education candidates who ran in opposition of so-called critical race theory in public schools advanced in Tuesday’s GOP primary election.

All 15 seats of the State Board of Education are up for grabs in November, and there were more than 50 candidates vying for their parties’ nominations. There were 31 Republicans and 25 Democrats on the ballot. Currently, the board is made up of nine Republicans and six Democrats.

Usually, voters pay little attention to races for the body that sets the state’s public school curriculum. But this year, how Texas schools operate has been a particularly hot topic. The pandemic’s impacts on school closings and mask mandates — as well as a new law restricting how students should learn about America’s history of racism — have made the state board races much more visible.

Because the state board is responsible for curriculum standards, the critical race dilemma may open the door for more censorship in schools even though Texas already has its so-called critical race theory law, said Chloe Latham Sikes, deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association.

The law is vague, Sikes said, and leaves the door open for interpretation, so state board officials who are trying to oust such teaching from schools could potentially censor materials that are inclusive of people of color and the LGBTQ community.

This has already happened with book bans around the state, she said.

The general election will take place Nov. 8. Board members serve four-year terms and set policies and curriculum standards for more than 1,200 Texas school districts and nearly 5.5 million students.

Some conservative candidates leaned hard into the rhetoric criticizing what they refer to as critical race theory even though no Texas school actually teaches the college-level academic theory in the classroom.

But as elementary and secondary schools work to diversify their curriculum and make lessons about history more inclusive, conservatives have used the term critical race theory to describe a variety of discussions about race and alleged those conversations are discriminatory against white children.

The fact that critical race theory is not taught before college in Texas has not stopped political candidates from their efforts to ban it or use their opposition as a campaign platform.

In Districts 2, 7, 11, 13 and 15, Republican candidates made critical race theory a central part of their campaigns, getting good results.

In District 15, which covers the Panhandle, Republican challenger Aaron Kinsey ousted incumbent Jay Johnson. Kinsey was endorsed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry. Kinsey also received a donation from conservative megadonor Tim Dunn and large donations from the Charter Schools Now political action committee.

Kinsey has said that critical race theory is taught under different guises and that Texas needs teachers who can identify how it is being rebranded.

In District 2, which covers part of the Gulf Coast, Republican LJ Francis won the open seat and based his campaign on banning critical race theory from schools, claiming that “woke liberals” are pushing a critical race theory agenda.

He’ll face either Victor Perez or Pete Garcia, who advanced to a Democratic primary runoff election. Democrat Ruben Cortez Jr. currently holds the seat.

Republicans Julie Pickren and Michael Barton were the top vote-getters for the open District 7 seat, which also covers part of the Gulf Coast. Both Barton and Pricken made opposition to critical race theory a top priority. It wasn’t clear Wednesday afternoon if Pricken would win outright or face Barton in a runoff. The eventual winner will face Democrat Daniel Hochman.

In District 11, which covers parts of Tarrant and Parker counties, incumbent Pat Hardy won the nomination. She was first elected in 2002. Going into the primaries, Hardy made it a priority to get critical race theory and The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project out of classrooms. Current law already prohibits teaching about the 1619 Project.

Republican Kathryn Monette led the race for the District 12 seat but couldn’t avoid a runoff. Monette made opposition to critical race theory a focus of her campaign while her runoff opponent, A. Denise Russell, didn’t.

In District 14, which includes Denton County and reaches to Lampasas County, neither Republican candidate appeared to make critical race theory a part of their campaign, but incumbent Sue Melton-Malone lost to Evelyn Brooks.

Socorro Morales, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who has expertise in critical race theory, said it’s not true that talking about race, inclusivity or ethnic studies means schools are placing the blame on white children.

Stephanie Knight, dean of the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University, said candidates are using critical race theory this election season as a way to mobilize voters.

“Those who are using critical race theory as a rallying cry are not really thinking about the curriculum, per se,” she said. “They’re thinking about an issue that they want to emphasize.”

The ongoing rancor over race and whether students should be required to wear masks to prevent coronavirus infection has resulted in louder calls for more school choice and so campaign cash followed, with more than $500,000 given to both Democrat and Republican candidates this year from the Charter Schools Now PAC.

Of that, more than $200,000 was given to Democratic candidate Omar Yanar, who ran to replace Georgina Pérez in District 1, which covers the El Paso region. Pérez, who has been an advocate for more charter school accountability, isn’t running for reelection. Yanar lost; Democrats Melissa N. Ortega and Laura Marquez will head to the runoff election.

Ortega and Marquez raised less than $10,000 combined.

Disclosure: The New York Times, The University of Texas at San Antonio and Southern Methodist University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, March 4, 2022: A previous version of this story misspelled a School Board of Education candidate's name. She is Julie Pickren, not Julien Pricken.