By Casey Michel
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Most weeks Fred Zoch can drop into the Bridge City Rotary Club luncheons at Linders Seafood & Barbecue to relax, dine on the Tex-Mex buffet and swap business news and gossip with his fellow Rotarians. But it was with some trepidation that Zoch, the president of the Bridge City school board, attended the February 20 gathering.
The scheduled speaker that day was Donna Ballard, a 44-year-old evangelical minister's wife from The Woodlands who, after just two years in office, has become the most controversial member of the State Board of Education -- perhaps in the entire history of that body. Since 1995, Ballard has represented an East Texas district that sprawls from north Harris County east to Orange County and all the way up to Texarkana.
An attractive, blond-haired mother of four, Ballard has emerged as a leader among a six-member faction of ultra-conservatives that has jolted the state education establishment, from the Texas Education Agency right down to independent school districts like Bridge City, by bitterly opposing efforts to revise academic priorities for the three million children who attend the state's public schools.
Ballard and her like-minded colleagues have dug in against a proposed new curriculum called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, which spells out what academic elements every child, from kindergarten through high school, will be expected to master. Two years in the making, the document is the first rewriting of the state's educational requirements since the early 1980s. When complete, the TEKS will determine the direction Texas public schools will take well into the next century.
Though outgunned by six Democrats and three moderate Republicans on the 15-member board, Ballard and her allies have the support of a busy consortium of Christian conservative and far-right groups such as the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Eagle Forum, to name a few. Together, they have overwhelmed the TEKS adoption process by noisily insisting that the new curriculum is an effort to impose "outcome-based education," or OBE, on Texas public schoolchildren. While it's difficult to find anyone who can clearly define OBE, its critics contend that the method de-emphasizes the accumulation of knowledge in favor of a "holistic" approach that measures student performance against behavioral standards, rather than academic ones.
Ballard and her fellow opponents of the proposed TEKS are holding out for a back-to-basics curriculum that mandates traditional classroom activities such as phonics, math drills and rote memorization. Their opposition has not only tied the state board in to ideological knots, but it's also put them at odds with leaders of the Texas Legislature, which passed a bill two years ago that narrowed the board's authority over curriculum by limiting its role in reviewing the textbooks used in Texas classrooms.
That led to pitched battles over the content of health and social studies books that were marked by charges of racism and "social engineering." The conflict reached a emotional climax in November, when Ballard scrapped a planned presentation of concerns she had with proposed social studies texts and left a board meeting in tears.
That dispute had barely cooled when Ballard helped stir a ruckus at the state board's February meeting. After three hours of contentious public testimony on the new curriculum, Ballard led a walkout of sorts to a nearby conference room with ideological soul mate Richard Neill, a Fort Worth dentist elected to the board last November. There, while the rest of the members continued about their business, they breathlessly announced to a handful of reporters that they had cracked open a conspiracy by the federal government to take over public education in Texas.
While many, including board president Jack Christie, dismiss such tactics as nothing more than desperate attempts to delay adoption of the TEKS, the rift has transformed what has traditionally been a group of decorous professionals into one of the most cantankerous and closely watched political acts in Austin.
And Ballard seems determined to keep it that way. By the time she rolled into Bridge City, the only thing about Texas public education that she hadn't criticized was the quality of cafeteria food. Even with the Legislature in session, there are few elected officials in Texas right now who want to be heard as badly as Ballard does, and there certainly are none who work as hard at it.
Her speech to the Bridge City Rotary Club was the first of three she had scheduled for Orange County that day. Most of the previous morning had been spent in Beaumont, where Ballard met with Republican supporters before attending a town hall meeting in nearby Mauriceville. It was there she launched her latest crusade: the elimination of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the test used to determine how well the state's students are learning.
With a self-assuredness that grows with each sweeping pronouncement she makes, Ballard told a small gathering at a local restaurant that from her "grassroots" perspective, there was a widespread discontent with the TAAS.
"Any time you have parents and teachers hating something," she said, "it needs to go."
Later that evening, on a Beaumont radio program, Ballard repeated her attack on the TAAS, and she did it again in Austin the following day at a news conference arranged to accommodate the rush of media inquiries she had received.
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