Ignoring Jon and Oscar: Explaining a curious endorsement by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Michael Che on Saturday Night Live
Michael Che on Saturday Night Live

By Alan Bean

The Texas State Board of Education just took another hit from the late night comedians, this time on Saturday Night Live.

“You know who I feel bad for?” Michael Che asked during the shows fake news segment, “Texas schoolteachers. I mean, it’s hard enough going to school and teaching kids that God created the world in like, 1942, and the first two people were John Wayne and Barbara Bush. But now you gotta deal with 6 foot country boys coughing up a monkey disease.”

The heart of the bit, of course, was Dallas becoming home to America’s first ebola patient; but the caricature of the Texas school curriculum was a swipe at the state’s Board of Education.

For years now, the Texas State Board of Education has been grabbing headlines as its more conservative members (on the advice of their friends on the Religious Right) press the “just-a-theory” approach to evolutionary biology, support the rehabilitation of Senator Joe McCarthy, the elevation of social conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Phyllis Schlafly to rock star status, the devaluation of progressive heroes like Archbishop Oscar Romero, Caesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall, the positive re-evaluation of the Moral Majority and the thoroughly unhistorical notion that the founding fathers were strongly influenced by Moses and the “Christian or Biblical tradition” when they framed the U.S. Constitution.

ThrowBackTexas-300x226In this memorable piece, Jon Stewart explains how “Oscar Romero got disappeared by right wingers for the second time.”  Stewart reminds his audience that what happens in Texas matters to the rest of the country because textbook companies operate with the huge Texas market in mind.  For this reason, when Texas gets it wrong, the entire country follows right behind us.

Oscar Romero
Oscar Romero

Pat Hardy, the Republican candidate for State Board of Education, District 11, isn’t the most controversial person on the Board.   But in Stewart’s classic treatment of the TSBOE, Hardy is shown explaining why she thinks Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was murdered at the altar for standing up to American-backed death squads, shouldn’t figure prominently in Texas history texts.  She hadn’t heard of him, and she was willing to bet that no one else on the board had either.

Apparently, Ms. Hardy was right.  Her motion passed with overwhelming support.

The Texas State Board of Education is a national laughing stock and Pat Hardy isn’t going to change that.  At the end of his segment, Jon Stewart answers the derisive laughter of his audience by shouting, in effect, if you don’t like what you’re hearing, get off your asses and run for the Texas State Board of Education.

Nancy Bean
Nancy Bean

My wife, Nancy Bean, rose to the challenge–the first Democrat to run for the Texas Board since 1996.

How does the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a moderate newspaper serving a highly conservative constituency, deal with the SBOE race when endorsement time rolls around?

They hide their heads in the sand.

“The board has only one duty under the Texas Constitution” the paper’s editorial board argues, “to oversee wise investment of the Permanent School Fund.”

It’s true, part of the State Board’s job is to oversee The Permanent School Fund, an almost forty billion dollar pool of money fed by the sale and use of state lands.  In recent years, thanks to the explosion of the state’s oil and gas industry, the fund has grown at a cancerous rate.  In fact, it recently surpassed Harvard University’s endowment fund to become the largest educational endowment in the nation.

The Star-Telegram congratulates the State Board of Education for overseeing the Permanent School Fund “extremely well”, and since Pat Hardy currently serves as chair of the committee responsible for this fund, she comes in for particular praise.  In fact, she gets the paper’s endorsement because, “Bean is a knowledgeable candidate but lacks the fiscal experience to replace Hardy’s oversight of the Permanent School Fund.”

The Permanent School Fund is a big deal, no question.  But how, exactly, does the State Board “oversee” these funds.  They have no direct access to the $40 billion, but can only work with a share of the interest generated by the fund.  Every two years, the board must decide what percentage of the fund to direct toward providing text books and other educational resources to Texas schools.  This year, eleven board members, Pat Hardy among them, decided to spend 3.5% of the fund.  A member associated with Tea Party cast the single opposing vote.

Apart from a brief article in the Texas Tribune, nobody noticed, and for good reason. The issue is uncontroversial and therefore politically irrelevant. The Board has sparked nationwide ridicule for the work that occupies the lion’s share of its time: setting curriculum standards for Texas schools.  In recent years, the SBOE has been controlled by the Christian Right, and that partisan agenda has driven every controversial decision the board has made.

Pat Hardy didn’t vote Oscar Romero out of the Texas curriculum because she had never heard of him (although I suspect she hadn’t); she was serving as the mouthpiece for a power block that disagreed with the stand the Central American religious leader took against a right wing military junta armed, trained and supported by the United States of America.  Romero is now being considered for sainthood, a process that was blocked by ideological opponents within the Catholic church who accused him of “theological errors”.

Romero’s “errors” involved his support for liberation theology, a species of Christian thought, popular in Latin America, that interprets the Bible from the perspective of the poor.

I suspect that Pat Hardy honestly had never heard of Romero, but the folks who asked her to publicly dishonor the man knew him all too well.
Who should shape the state’s curriculum, academics authorities who have earned the right to an opinion on matters of fact, or untutored dentists and car salesmen who have nothing to offer but ideology and ignorance?
Pat Hardy doesn’t believe the experts who address the board on technical subject matter issues require credentials in the field being addressed.
Nancy Bean thinks the board should hear testimony from credentialed experts and honor the scholarly consensus.

Here’s the bottom line.  Pat Hardy will continue play ball with partisan ideologues and Nancy Bean will not.

Pat Hardy will continue to vote with the folks who flout a clear consensus among biologists and historians and Nancy Bean will not.

Pat Hardy will continue to represent an ideological constituency that wants to shield Texas school children from the downside of American history; Nancy Bean wants all Texas students, regardless of religion, ethnicity and economic status, to feel included in the unfolding American story.

The Star-Telegram couldn’t address the issues that really matter without angering their readership, so they shifted their attention to an uncontroversial on which there is widespread bi-partisan agreement.

If the Star-Telegram agrees with the ideological position the State Board has adopted in recent years, they should by all means say so.  The problem is, they don’t.  On all the issues that matter, the editorial board sides with Bean and opposes the incumbent.  But they couldn’t say that.  Not in Fort Worth, Texas.  So they changed the metric, ignored a national scandal that keeps feeding material to comedians, and endorsed the status quo.

If that’s what it takes to survive in the Fort Worth media market, the editorial board of the Star-Telegram has my sympathy.  But on the issues that really matter, Nancy Bean represents the interests of teachers, students, and the academic community, while Pat Hardy (like the editors at the Star-Telegram) has adapted to a political environment controlled by ideological conservatives.