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Mary Knotts Perkins is a 62-year-old mother of four and grandmother of five who's lived in Lufkin for 40 years. She's a graduate of the University of Texas, a former school teacher and a member in good standing of the First Methodist Church in her hometown.
"I am," Perkins says, "about as traditional as you can get."
Perkins cares about children and their education. She cares so much that she spent 12 years on the board of the Lufkin Independent School District, twice serving as its president, and for the past six years has sat on the State Board of Education, representing a district that sprawls from north of Longview into northeast Harris County. Both jobs occupied quite a bit of her time; neither paid her a cent in salary.
Perkins speaks with pride of the improvements Texas public schools have made in the past decade -- how test scores are up, how the dropout rate has declined, how middle schools are being restructured to better serve students. She, like others, traces the beginning of those improvements back to House Bill 72, the education reform package enacted in 1984 under Governor Mark White that gave us smaller classrooms and no-pass, no-play.
"We're doing a good job," says Perkins, "but we've got a long way to go."
Perkins, however, won't be along for the ride, at least in an official capacity. She discovered this year that just caring about schoolchildren and wanting to do right by them isn't enough, and that her notions of tradition are a world apart from those of the sex-obsessed shock troops of the religious right.
Come the new year, Perkins will relinquish her seat on the state board to Donna Ballard, a 43-year-old mother of four from The Woodlands who's married to a minister who pastors an evangelical church in Spring. The peripatetic Ballard and her family moved to Texas from Washington, D.C., less than five years ago, after previously residing in five other states, and Ballard's personal commitment to public education in Texas is such that she's having one of her children home-schooled. (The daughter is "modeling," Ballard explains, and thus is completing her education by taking correspondence courses. Two of her older children graduated from public school, she says, and a younger child currently attends McCullough High School.)
Ballard is one of three newly elected Republicans who will, for the first time, give the GOP a one-vote majority on the 15-member board that approves textbooks and sets curriculum standards for the state's 1,000-plus school districts and the more than 3 million children they try to educate.
Ballard and the two other new Republicans owe their victories to a coordinated, church-based campaign run on their behalf by a proliferation of far-right and Christian conservative organizations that made capturing control of the state board their top electoral priority months before the November 8 election. Perkins and Patsy Johnson of Sulphur Springs, an incumbent Democrat who was unseated by a member of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, were prime targets of that big-bucks effort, which essentially made the two small-town East Texas women out to be crazed deviants intent on foisting condoms and homosexuality on innocent schoolchildren.
Johnson (a former teacher and onetime member of her local school board, member of the First Methodist Church in her hometown, etc.) says her opponent distributed fliers in Johnson's own community claiming that she was "promoting masturbation by five year olds, that I was for teaching high schoolers oral, anal and vaginal sex ...."
"Forgive me, " she adds somewhat abashedly, "because I learned to talk about things on the front page of the newspaper that I wasn't comfortable with ...."
There was one especially noxious brochure mailed out on behalf of Ballard and other Republican candidates by the San Antonio-based Texans for Governmental Integrity, one of the several generically named organizations that marshaled money and support on behalf of the GOP challengers. It featured a picture of a black man and a white man, nude from the waist up and kissing. "Homosexuality. Lesbian Adoption. Condom Usage," it declaimed in large block letters. "Do you want your children learning about this in school? The liberals on the board of education do." It went on to quote extensively from teachers' manuals that the "radical homosexual lobby" supposedly had pressured the state board into adopting, and railed about "the radical leftist agenda" of board members and the "Austin-based child abuse" they were perpetrating.
It was "horrible garbage," says Perkins.
Not to mention a bundle of lies and distortions.
To cite one prominent example, the brochure cited the picture of the two men kissing as being found in an informational pamphlet published by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and also available through AIDS Services of Austin. And the mailing strongly suggested that AIDS Service of Austin was listed as a reference source in health textbooks used by Texas students. But the fact is that none of the four health textbooks that were adopted by the board earlier this year contained mention of any AIDS service organizations or hot lines, although the teachers' manuals for a couple of the textbooks included a recommended student activity that involved contacting unspecified local AIDS organizations in their communities.