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.
But while Donna Ballard and her conservative colleagues have proven adept at making headlines, so far their righteous indignation hasn't had much effect on the education students are receiving in Texas public schools.
Indeed, many critics, including watchdog groups that track the kind of Christian conservative groups that support Ballard, say her attacks on public schools score best with parents who so fear the moral decline of society that many now send their kids to private schools or school them at home; either way, they've given up on public education and everything it stands for. (Three of Ballard's four children are products of public education; the fourth was pulled out of McCullough High School during her junior year and was home-schooled before eventually earning a degree through a correspondence course.)
"I think the fact that Texas has finally made a commitment, at least on paper, to actually educate all children equally is very closely linked to the religious right's general discomfort with public education," says Cecile Richards of the Texas Freedom Network in Austin. "It's related to a lot of their concerns. There's more integration, more kids going to school with other kids, all kinds of kids. And I think they think that is dangerous and untenable."
The upheaval also comes at a time when the State Board of Education's actual influence in the classroom is marginal. A rewrite of the Texas Education Code, known as Senate Bill 1, removed the board's traditional responsibility for reviewing textbook content and placed it with the state's 1,045 independent school districts, which are given a choice of textbooks to use for each subject and are told what students should be taught, as well as how to determine what they've learned. What goes on in the classroom is largely left up to the individual districts.
And, at least in Bridge City, they are wary of anyone who wants to change that.
"In my opinion, public education isn't as bad as all that," says school board president Fred Zoch. "I have a lot of respect for Donna Ballard, but I get a little tired of hearing all this negativity. Very few people in my district are even aware of the kind of stuff she's talking about."
Those who have heard Ballard, and profess to know exactly what she's saying, fall into two camps. Her supporters laud her as a true conservative, a grassroots champion of parental rights and a fierce advocate for traditional family and academic values. They say she stands for the common sense that's required in order for Texas schools to produce disciplined, educated children.
Her detractors offer an equally black-and-white caricature. To them, Donna Ballard is simply a tool of the religious right, a Bible-thumping fanatic dedicated to returning prayer to the classroom, banning the teaching of evolution science and sex education and, in general, obliterating the line between church and state. Some even suspect that in opposing the TEKS, Ballard and her conservative colleagues on the board are up to something worse.
"The ultimate goal of that group, and I'll say this up front, is to get rid of public schools," says Alma Allen, an HISD administrator and former teacher and principal who represents a Houston-area district on the state board. "They intend to sabotage anything positive about education under the guise of being interested in what's going on."
Which profile of Ballard is most accurate is not so easy to determine, and quite frankly would largely depend on how you react to a bright, articulate woman who happens to be very conservative, and a pastor's wife to boot. It may also depend on how you view the company she keeps. Many of Ballard's most ardent and outspoken backers clearly operate on the fringe of rational thought about public schools, if not about society as a whole. Ballard may not share their level of paranoia, but she clearly shares their fear that the world is spinning out of control.
At the same time, Ballard is well aware that she's striking a populist chord that resonates beyond the religious right, and when away from her fervent supporters and hangers-on she can come across as a reasoned proponent of change. Too many people making the educational decisions are "out of touch," Ballard says, particularly when it comes to understanding what parents want their children to know. They want them to be able read, write and do basic math computations, she says, not to be wasting classroom time having their self-esteem burnished. They want an emphasis on facts -- names, dates and places -- not lessons on political correctness. And they want the power to make the important decisions themselves.
As taxpayers, they deserve at least that much, Ballard says, and she intends to deliver. In her view, public education has been consumed by a liberal establishment whose "radical egalitarianism" too often punishes the best by rewarding the rest, no matter how mediocre. "Literally thousands" of parents have contacted Ballard's office with such complaints, she says, pleading with her to give them a voice with their local administrators and school board members.
"It is the parent and the taxpayer who have chosen to be gracious and pool our money together so that we can provide education for all children who want to take advantage of it," she says. "It's not free. There is no free education; we pay for it. I think it is very important that we see our children first and foremost as belonging to their parents. It is the parents who gave birth, and they are the ones who have the final say."
It's a cool, gray morning in mid-February, and Donna Ballard is in her tiny office, at the end of a hallway on the second floor of a small building off of Sawdust Road in The Woodlands. She has recently expanded to an adjacent room, where a new computer that no one's learned to operate yet has been set up. She says she receives the office space as an in-kind contribution from the building owner, who is a supporter.
Ballard is dressed casually in a pair of brown slacks, an orange turtleneck and a copper-colored vest. A small gold cross dangles from her neck. Her blond hair falls naturally around her handsome face, to which just a touch of makeup has been applied. She could be a suburban mom anywhere. It is not, however, a look she projects at the state board meetings or at public appearances.
On those occasions, Ballard is all serious business. She often wears vibrant red dresses that while cut conservatively are nonetheless difficult to ignore. She has a quick, confident smile, but an aura of drama seems to surround her. Her air of self-importance is enhanced by the flock of mothers, grandmothers, retired teachers and other supporters who follow her every movement at the monthly board meetings. As the board conducts its business, her volunteer staff and such close advisors as Anne Newman of the Texas Family Research Center, a nonprofit right-wing think tank, drop notes and faxes on her desk. She gets up often during the discussions to confer with supporters in the audience, and she's has been known to take cellular phone calls in a corner of the chamber.
Ballard has not enjoyed much of a working relationship with the media, or, for that matter, with anyone who has questioned her motivations and tactics. She frequently chastises reporters for what she perceives as inaccuracies in their stories and is not shy about writing biting letters to the editors of newspapers around the state. She accuses her most persistent critic, the Texas Freedom Network's Cecile Richards, a daughter of the former governor, of "trying to make a name for herself and using me as an outlet to do it."
Ballard seldom grants formal interviews. A year ago, a Dallas television reporter working on a story about the religious right approached her outside board chambers with his crew and asked for a comment. She instructed the reporter to wait, then went into the ladies' room. A few minutes later, an aide came out and gathered Ballard's things. She never spoke to the reporter, who included her disappearing act in his televised story.
"If I ever get a little testy, it's over people claiming that somebody outside of my two pairs of tote shoes and my sweat and my losing four dress sizes and working so hard is what won me my race," she says. "I'm sure there are people who belong to the Christian Coalition, whoever they are, that supported me. But they were not the vehicle by which I was elected, nor are they involved in my decision-making process on the board."
But is what motivates Donna Ballard necessarily what's best for public schools and, of course, the children who attend them? She opposes the state's efforts to update its curriculum, saying that only by returning to the classroom of the 1950s can public schools be saved. Yet she favors allowing parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school or to school them at home -- ideas that some believe will bring about the end of public education.
She is opposed to any outside influence on Texas education, particularly by the federal government, yet wants to replace the homegrown Texas Assessment of Academic Skills with "nationally recognized" norms-referenced testing, which scores students on how well they do compared to all other students.
Ballard also seems to want it both ways on the issue of local control. She is pushing for more influence at the district level, preferably by parents, while arguing that the state board needs the authority to call the shots on textbook content and curriculum.
Her critics point out such inconsistencies and say that Ballard is overstepping both her level of expertise, as well as her authority.
"Our job is to tell the system what the students need to learn," says board chairman Jack Christie, a west Houston chiropractor. "We are elected public servants and laypersons overseeing the public schools. We are not know-all-to-end-all experts in this domain, so we have to hire, we have to appoint, we have to listen to folks who do this every day of the week. And then we hold them accountable."
Conflicting philosophies have managed to co-exist within public education for many decades. Yet any significant change in how schools work has largely been driven by intellectual theory, with any emotional opposition marginalized and shunted to the fringe as irrelevant to the discussion. Texas, however, is just one of many states where today the education establishment is being challenged by a small but very vocal grassroots movement that is as social in orientation as it is political.
In Oregon, for example, more than 100 lawsuits have been filed by parents angry over education reforms that they feel originate with liberal "educrats" or, worse, the federal government, both of which historically have felt duty bound to reject what is perceived as the narrow interests of a relative few.
The fact that the Christian Coalition -- whose founder, Pat Robertson, has said that "if you put Christian principles in and Christian pedagogy in ... you would totally revolutionize education in America" -- has lent substantive voice to those interests has made the dissent more lively, and effective, than ever before.
The revolt is definitely brewing in Texas, says Ballard. A day doesn't go by, she says, when she doesn't get a call from a parent or a teacher distressed by "the system." From the former, she'll hear how children can't read and do arithmetic; from the latter, she'll hear how the education bureaucracy has determined that kids do not have to know how to spell or memorize multiplication tables.
And she suspects that there are many more parents and teachers who are being duped, but just don't know it yet.
"There are thousands of people who can't articulate it, who really don't understand the things that I do because I'm involved," Ballard says. "But they know they want a return to basics in education. They know their children aren't learning. They know there are certain controversial issues that they don't think belong in the schools.
"And it makes them mad when they go to their school and the principal says, 'Oh, Mrs. Smith, you're the only person who's complained about that,' or they go before the local school board and no one listens. These are people outside the education system who are saying, 'Things have got to be different, we don't want this for our children.' "
During her 1994 campaign for the District 8 seat, Ballard liked to tell people that who they elected to the State Board of Education was just as important as who they voted into the governor's mansion. But if Donna Ballard had tried to get elected to anything other than an unpaid job on a statewide panel that, at the time, was attracting very little public attention or media scrutiny, she probably would have been dismissed by many voters as a bit of a carpetbagger.
Ballard had lived in Texas for fewer than five years when she decided to run against Democratic incumbent Mary Knotts Perkins, a former teacher from Lufkin. Though she says she's a fifth generation Texan, and was "conceived" in Austin, Ballard was actually born and raised in North Hollywood, California, during the 1950s and '60s -- "when the streets were safe," she says. Her father, who later taught English for 23 years, was in the music publishing business with Tim Spencer, an original member of the singing group Sons of the Pioneers. Both of her parents were Christian music singers.
At age 19, she married a childhood friend, Mark Ballard, a minister for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal order founded by West Coast evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s.
Until she ran for the State Board of Education, Ballard's life was wrapped up in her husband's ministry. They worked in gang-ridden neighborhoods in east Los Angeles until the early 1980s, when Mark Ballard was called to "pioneer" a church in Longmont, Colorado, near Boulder. The church grew to more than 400 people before the Ballards moved to rural Ohio, where Mark became dean of students at Mount Vernon Bible College.
After three years, by which time Mark Ballard had become president of Mount Vernon, they moved the school to Virginia. They got the new facility on its feet, and then took some time off to live in Washington, D.C., before moving to Texas in 1990. Mark Ballard brought the Foursquare Gospel to Spring as founder of Trinity Community Church on FM 2920. But he apparently found few converts, and is now pastoring at a church in Midland.
Soon after she arrived in Texas, Donna Ballard joined the Montgomery County Republican Women's Club and found her cause in the Adolescent Pregnancy Advisory Commission, which dates back to the gubernatorial administration of Bill Clements. After Ann Richards succeeded Clements, she reactivated the commission and asked for a report on teenage pregnancy in Texas. When Ballard heard about it, she suspected that the report would result in legislation establishing school-based health clinics that would also allow students to leave the classroom to have abortions without notifying their parents.
Though there was no evidence that any of it was true -- the ad hoc commission was only funded for a short time, and its final report elicited no calls for action -- Ballard found plenty of people who shared her fears.
"I organized Texas, I mean people from every county in the state, to stop this," she says. "That was a real strong signal to the Legislature, and they ended up abolishing that council all together."
It was during the campaign against the teen pregnancy commission that Ballard made the political and financial connections that would get her elected to the State Board of Education. Her most important contact was James Leininger, a San Antonio physician, businessman and philanthropist who funds a voucher program that enables low-income students to attend private schools. One of the wealthiest men in Texas, Leininger also provides financial backing for numerous political action committees that support conservative candidates and causes.
Leininger is a friend and supporter of Robert Offutt, a San Antonio dentist elected to the state board in 1992. During his first term, Offutt, a strong advocate of vouchers that would allow parents to use tax dollars for private-school education, led the charge against health textbooks up for adoption by the state board. Offutt's strategy included lining up public testimony from lobbyists and activists affiliated with such moral crusaders as the Christian Coalition, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the Reverend Donald Wildmon's American Family Association.
Attacking the usual suspects -- homosexuality and birth control -- Offutt and his supporters demanded more than 1,000 changes to the adopted texts, including removal of such discussion topics as "Six Steps to Clean Up the Planet" and the importance of drinking water standards.
In the end, the board voted 8-6, with one abstention, to accept more than 300 changes. Among the deletions were educational information on HIV/AIDS and sections that taught self-examinations for identifying signs of breast cancer. One publisher, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, refused to accept the recommended revisions and withdrew its textbook from consideration.
At the request of the Republican Party, Offutt began recruiting conservative candidates to run against the state board's moderates in 1994. He contacted Ballard at the urging of Anne Newman, a conservative activist from San Antonio who had worked as a researcher for the anti-pregnancy commission forces. Ballard, says Newman, was the perfect candidate: "She's like having your Mom on the school board, she's so grassroots."
Maybe so, but such sentimental characterizations don't completely capture Ballard, who only has one child, a high school senior, still in public school. In her mind, her candidacy had a greater, almost missionary purpose.
"I wanted to put my feet to those things our country was founded on," she says. "I feel like what America is about is the freedom to express your own conscience. But, you know, if you can express it more articulately and convince other people or if you work harder at a campaign than someone else does or if you're more persuasive, then you get to be in a position to impact public policy. That's the rules, that's the way it is."
In winning her seat, Ballard helped rewrite the rules for state board campaigns, which traditionally had been low-key, cordial affairs that, given the demands and lack of compensation for the job, attract those with some expertise or experience in education. Ballard, who says she taught early-childhood development at her husband's Bible college (though she has no college degree), entered the race as a political neophyte, though she did have the support of a network of political action committees that poured thousands of dollars into her campaign.
One PAC, the Committee for the Advancement of Responsible Education, or CARE, raised nearly $300,000 that was distributed to a half-dozen conservative candidates for state board seats. The organization was formed by Charles Todd Kent, a Bryan-College Station man who was also a paid consultant to Ballard's campaign.
A second PAC, known as the T-3 Group, contributed large sums of money to some of those same candidates -- including $21,800 to Ballard -- to pay for a luxury seldom, if ever, enjoyed in a State Board of Education race: cable-television ads.
The contribution that got Ballard the most mileage, however, was from a Leininger PAC, Texans for Governmental Integrity, which attacked the incumbents that supported the controversial health textbooks. In the final week of the '94 campaign, the committee distributed a brochure on Ballard's behalf that accused Perkins, a grandmother of five, of promoting oral and anal sex instruction in Texas schools. The literature also suggested Perkins supported the legalization of marijuana and exploited latent racial and sexual fears by featuring a photo of a white man and a black man kissing.
Incumbent Patsy Johnson, who was beaten at the polls by Eagle Forum member Randy Stevenson of Tyler, was subjected to the same outrageous -- and patently false -- treatment, courtesy of Texans for Governmental Integrity.
"I'm a Methodist. I have a very structured, traditional home life," says Perkins, who also served 11 years on the board of Lufkin school district, four of them as president. "I was called an atheist; I was called everything in the world. I heard that Methodists aren't born again and aren't going to Heaven. I told my preacher, 'Gee, I didn't know any of this about Methodism.' "
Perkins says that Ballard used the same tactics in public forums, where "she whipped the crowd into a frenzy" by waving around textbooks that supposedly encouraged student discussions on suicide, euthanasia and lesbian adoption. What Ballard didn't say, Perkins notes, was that the texts were ancillary materials used by teachers, not students.
Ballard, who claims she didn't see Leininger's campaign brochure until after it was distributed, says it makes no difference.
"I'm not ashamed of the fact that when I traveled up and down East Texas, I'd show textbooks with hypothetical scenarios where they are leading children to think about pulling the plug on a friend," she retorts. "They had pictures of children sitting next to each other -- these are books for 14-year-olds -- where it says children should know about sexually transmitted diseases so they'll wait until they are mature before having sex. Do you know any 14-year-olds who don't think they're mature? I mean, 15, 16, 17 pages on contraception and nothing about abstinence in those books, or very little. It infuriated me, and it infuriated a lot of people."
Ballard was among those on the state board who in late 1995 successfully pressured Education Commissioner Mike Moses to return a $1.4 million grant from the Center for Disease Control. The grant, which was vehemently opposed by the Christian Coalition as "promoting illicit sexual behavior," would have funded seminars to teach students how to prevent AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Ballard insists that she supports sex education, including making students aware of the dangers of communicable diseases, as long as it also encourages children not to have sex.
"How do you handle a 15- or 16-year-old in regards to sexual appetite?" she says. "How do we inform them? How do we talk to them about refusal skills? How do we provide for them a healthy mental and emotional atmosphere? As a society, we have to decide how we're going to direct our children, and we need to direct them."
Such bursts of reason were too infrequent during the campaign, and perhaps because Ballard opposes attempts to provide other kinds of "mental and emotional" direction in the classroom, she has been unable to shake accusations that she is an elected tool of right-wing special interests. The tactics she used against Perkins alarmed some East Texas educators, none more so than Wayne Gore, the superintendent of the Broaddus Independent School District near San Augustine.
Gore made it a point to follow Ballard during the campaign and even videotaped some of her speeches. The day after Ballard's election, Gore sent her a letter saying she won "by deceit, half-truths and innuendo." He likened her campaign rhetoric to that of Adolf Hitler, who, Gore pointed out, believed that "the great masses of people ... will more easily fall victims to a great lie than to a small one."
Gore, a plainspoken man who describes himself as "a Christian against religious right candidates," says Ballard has since remained indebted to her more radical supporters.
"In my opinion," he says, "and I'll be blunt, she is a prostitute for these groups."
Ballard naturally resents such criticism, but she's never done much to refute it, either. At her first board meeting in Austin, Ballard was congratulated, very publicly and very effusively, by Jeff Fisher, the executive director of the Texas Christian Coalition.
"He was with his wife, and they hugged Donna as though she was their best friend," recalls Harriet Peppel of People for the American Way, which has been following the state board closely since the 1994 elections. "If I had ever thought she wasn't part of their movement, that made me really see it."
Ballard denies she is a member of the Christian Coalition, although, she says, "I am not trying to distance myself from them." Still, she is sensitive to her identification with the religious right -- perhaps overly so: During a photo session with the Press, Ballard removed the small cross she usually wears around her neck, explaining that she didn't want to offend "Jewish people."
Ballard's defeat of Perkins, along with victories by Stevenson and Richard Watson of Gorman, resulted in the first Republican majority since the state school board became an elected body in the mid-1980s. That feat earned Offutt a special award from the Christian Coalition in November 1995 at the organization's Faith and Fiesta Conference in San Antonio.
Then, last year, the far right solidified its control of the GOP faction with election victories by Richard Neill and Beaumont insurance salesman David Bradley. Leininger and others funneled more money into a number of campaigns, but more telling was the fact that Ballard, Offutt, Stevenson and Watson took the unprecedented step of publicly endorsing conservative challengers in their races against the incumbents, including board chairman Jack Christie, a fellow Republican who had supported Ballard's 1994 campaign against Perkins.
Christie, who was appointed board chairman by Ann Richards and reappointed by Bush in 1995, managed to fend off a nasty GOP primary challenge by Terri Leo of The Woodlands before easily winning re-election in November. "This is a group that has a foothold by destroying the incumbents," Christie says. "And to gain a majority of like thinkers, they have to get rid of people like me, so they threw everything they could at me. After 17 years of public service, I was a liberal."
Bob Offutt, who many people believe is responsible for the dynamic shift that's taken place on the state board, claims that neither religion nor politics has much to do with the issues he supports. He points out that he and his conservative colleagues have advocated such non-ideological issues as the first purchase of spelling textbooks by the state in ten years.
"Entirely too much has been made of the fact that the Christian Coalition may have supported some of these candidates," he says. "There's a more basic difference. You have individuals now -- and the focus really should be on this -- who are willing to take on the education establishment. The state board historically has been looked upon as a rubber stamp. The people who have come on are willing to be skeptical of what the Texas Education Agency recommends, and to take on the TEA if necessary."
From the moment it was scheduled last month, the March 4 special session of the state board was being billed as a chance to, as Jack Christie put it, "clear the air" surrounding the new curriculum.
Christie and the other moderate Republicans, Monte Hasie of Lubbock and Geraldine Miller of Dallas, as well as the six Democrats on the board, had hopes that the showdown would ease the tensions that have dominated board meetings for almost a year now, and allow the body to get back to work.
"I think it will be okay," Christie said in an interview a few days before the March 4 session, "because I don't have time, the commissioner doesn't have time and the governor doesn't have time for anyone who doesn't want to help the public schools. This is pure political grandstanding, and the children in our schools are not political."
It's hard to say whether it was politics or education that packed the board chambers in Austin that Tuesday morning. The large room was ringed by conservatives bussed in from Dallas/Fort Worth, many of them carrying signs urging the board to reject the TEKS; several placards made reference to passages from the Bible. By noon, a guard positioned outside the chamber entrance turned away anyone who didn't already have a seat.
The "clear the air" discussion was last on the board's agenda, and the item did not include an invitation to the public for testimony and comment. That angered Ballard and her allies, who have fought to have more input from parents on education matters.
"I am offended when we see state agencies arrogantly turn their face away from the public," Ballard would say later. "That's not democracy."
The board did allow public testimony during a separate hearing on a portion of the TEKS called the "enrichment curriculum." But that did little to appease Stephanie Cecil, director of the Texas chapter of the Eagle Forum. Cecil signed up to address the board, but when her opportunity to speak arrived, she shouted from the back of the room, "I am officially protesting because I am not being allowed to speak this afternoon."
Still, many others willing to stand up to the tyranny of government oppression took advantage of the opportunity. Though Christie tried to keep testimony limited to the topic at hand, it was a wasted effort.
"The TEKS must be busted wide open if we want to climb out of the coffin of subtle socialism," said Susan Stone, a homemaker from Fort Worth. The new curriculum is "education at its lowest form," she continued, and, if implemented, "will trash Godly honor and righteousness in our schools." Stone concluded her testimony by reading a lengthy passage from the Bible, which earned her hearty applause from the audience.
Another woman, a mother of three named Laurie Mertant, predicted that the new curriculum would make "big business the consumers of education, not parents."
"My father died for this country," she said, her voice quivering with emotion, "and I'm not going to let the blood that he shed go to waste."
And so it went. While the TEKS had considerable support, much of it came from educators and members of the team put together by the TEA to write the new curriculum. Not that it mattered much who supported what. By the time the board took up its much-anticipated special session at about 4 p.m., it was clear that no one's mind was going to be changed.
More than two hours later, after Education Commissioner Mike Moses tried one last time to reassure the board that it wasn't true, Ballard and the others were holding fast to the belief that the federal government was planning to foist outcome-based education and other horrors on Texas.
"We've got the proof, we've got the documents," insisted Richard Neill. "The issue isn't whether we're doing it, it's what we're going to do about it."
There is some dispute over who first used the term "conspiracy" to describe what insidious force is attempting to take over Texas schools. Ballard said Christie used it to belittle her and her colleagues' opposition to the new state curriculum. Christie counters that Ballard and Neill called it that on February 6, when they left a board meeting to stage a press conference.
There is no doubt, however, that the culprit is Goals 2000, a national education reform movement first initiated by President Bush in the late '80s. The idea, which has been made a priority by the Clinton administration, is to develop national academic standards while doling out federal funds to help states prepare their schools, teachers, administrators and students for meeting them.
More than 20 states have voluntarily signed onto the effort, including Texas, which has accepted more than $35 million in Goals 2000 grants since 1995. Almost all of that has been disbursed to about 50 districts across the state. Thanks to federally approved waivers, the districts have been free to do what they will with the money. Some have focused on teacher training and development, but most have bolstered their efforts to teach core academics, in particular reading skills.
But however the money is spent, Ballard says it's wrong for the Texas Education Agency to take it and equally wrong to assume there aren't some larger forces at work behind it.
"First of all," she says, "to even have to use that kind of money to help us out in reading -- what in the heck are we paying for in the first place? Number two is, I could go out and raise a couple million dollars across the state, or somebody could do that outside of taking federal money that does have strings attached, and will have strings attached, and the only reason it has so few now is because those of us who keep getting called names fought tooth to death over it."
Ballard shies away from describing Goals 2000 as a conspiracy, but when she talks about its relationship to the state's new curriculum, it's clear she suspects a collusion of sinister forces is poised to strip control of schools away from states, local districts and parents. References to "McCarthyism" have been made by some who have heard her weave the tale, and its hard not to have similar thoughts at one particular juncture in her explanation.
"And then," Ballard says, her voice rising slightly for emphasis, "we came across this." She holds up the Report of the Committee on Student Learning, a document that outlines research done by a group of educators from around the state in 1992. The study was commissioned by the 72nd Legislature and was aimed at accumulating information on a variety of topics, such as student assessment and essential skills, as well as the policies and programs in practice in Texas.
Research cited in the March 1993 report came from about two dozen entities, including business coalitions, think tanks, universities, private corporations and notable educators. The committee made few recommendations, but did appoint advisory panels to examine some issues, such as developmentally appropriate learning and outcome-based education, in more detail.
To Ballard, the Report of the Committee on Student Learning is the smoking gun that links the state's curriculum rewrite with the national reform efforts. Moreover, they say, the mere mention of OBE and an appearance before the committee by its biggest advocate, Dr. William Spady, means that Texas schoolchildren will be tested not so much on what they know, but on how well they put into practice such skills as critical thinking and problem solving.
In other words, students' success will be determined according to selective criteria that, by the way, are being developed by the federal government.
"In many people's minds, it's hard enough to make changes at the local level," Ballard says. "Imagine if people in Washington are making decisions about curriculum and tests and you have a child in public school that you paid for. You're going to have to abide by that. How in the world are you going to go up there and get that changed?"
Ballard makes a good point, but one that only partially captures the essence of her fears. The chief concern among her like-minded colleagues is that the navigator of the nation's education ship is Marc Tucker, founder of the private National Center on Education and the Economy, which contributed research to the Committee on Student Learning.
Tucker is a close friend of Hillary Clinton, who once sat on the board of the NCEE. He is also the man behind the New Standards Project, which is overseeing research and development toward national academic standards on behalf of 17 "member" states, including Texas. So far, the TEA has paid New Standards about $1.7 million in dues. Another $500,000 is owed, but questions raised by the conservatives on the state board last month forced Moses to withhold further payments.
At her press conference on February 6, Ballard characterized the New Standards Project as a "small group of individuals who have had an epiphany about how the world is going to be in the future, and they want us to work backward from that."
That clearly alarms Ballard, particularly since the national reform plan also includes establishing a link between the workplace and the classroom. Texas and other states have taken federal money under the Schools-to-Work Opportunity Act of 1994 to develop programs that would encourage children to start thinking about a particular career at a younger age. By high school, students would have expanded opportunities for vocational training and apprenticeships that are tied to their traditional education.
The goal is nothing new, nor is it anything that most parents wouldn't hope for their child: better preparation for the ever-changing workplace, which businesses and employers predict will require greater flexibility and a broader range of abilities.
Yet in Schools-to-Work, Ballard senses something subversive, an inevitable de-emphasis on knowledge in favor of "creating workers for the state," which, in conjunction with the federal government, will determine what every child must know and be able to do -- not only to graduate, but to get a job.
"What is not appropriate in my mind is to begin tracking children early on, as far back as kindergarten and first grade, and to start thinking of them as human resources who are going to be our production line workers someday," Ballard says. "That is very offensive to most Americans."
While she seems eager to believe the absolute worst about education reform, it's unlikely Ballard assembled her litany of objections by her own careful study of the issues. In fact, she and her fellow social conservatives may be the only members of the State Board of Education ever to come equipped with policy advisors.
Two of them, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Justice Foundation, both nonprofits, are funded by Leininger and operate out of the same San Antonio business address as Leininger's PAC, Texans for Governmental Integrity. Both groups are aggressively opposed to the state's new curriculum -- the Texas Public Policy Foundation has even drafted an "alternative" TEKS on behalf of social conservatives on the board -- as well as to every education reform being discussed anywhere in the country today. It's difficult to tell whether that opposition simply mirrors Ballard's or if it is actually shaping the way she thinks and votes.
"One of the things that is frustrating is that, as board members, we talk to each other but we make our own decisions," says board member Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat from Corpus Christi. "But it's like Donna Ballard can't make her own decisions. She has to turn to these people so they can send her a little note and tell her what to do. I mean, it's tacky. Who was elected to represent that area?"
One organization that has helped Ballard articulate her message is the nonprofit Texas Family Research Center, also in San Antonio. The research center is headed by Anne Newman, who worked with Ballard to oppose the teen-pregnancy commission and went on to help her election campaign. Each month, Newman publishes something called "The Notebook Policy Series" that for the last year has been deconstructing education reform in a most urgent tone.
"TEA's 'Master Plan': Education or Trained Labor?" was the lead topic in the March 1996 issue, which made the observation that the "American system of government is slowly being reconstructed into a socialist state, built upon the foundational theme of 'It takes a village to raise a child.' " The following month, Newman dubbed Schools-to-Work "Marc and Hillary's Youth Training System" in a Notebook Series dissection that featured a prediction by the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly that education would be taken over by work force development boards.
In September and again in November, Newman outlined the influence Tucker and Goals 2000 are having on the development of the state's new curriculum -- a scenario that, according to Ballard, is at the heart of the federal government's takeover of public education.
"The most obvious thing that's offensive is that it isn't just academic," Ballard says. "It's behavioral and attitudinal, and it's all part of having this national curriculum and national assessment. The people who are in charge of doing that and promoting that, they have ideas about change that some of us don't agree with. I'm seeing the change, and I'm not too happy about it."
Neither is a Montgomery County woman named Joy, who dropped by Ballard's office one morning last month. Joy, who was accompanied by another woman, entered Ballard's tiny office clutching a vocabulary assignment that her second-grader had brought home from school.
The lesson materials were about 15 mimeographed sheets of paper, each with a single word printed at the top. Below that were questions that asked students to define the word and then relate how they've witnessed examples of the concept in real life. For example, for the word "change," Joy's daughter and her classmates were asked what they might like to change about themselves.
While the assignment seemed innocent enough, right down to the bunnies and butterflies printed along the margins of each page, Joy explained that it was part of the psychological testing that schools are subjecting students to these days. Joy feared that her daughter's answers would be added to a national data base being created to help the federal government track children for the Schools-to-Work network.
What if someone -- an employer, a university admissions officer or a government bureaucrat -- decided her daughter didn't give the appropriate responses, Joy wondered. Would she be judged deficient in some way and assigned to a remedial class? Later, would she have trouble getting a good job or furthering her education?
This is far from the paranoia that it might appear to be, said Ballard. "This is happening everywhere, in Greenwood and Midland, in San Antonio and White Oak."
That it was happening in Montgomery County was all that mattered to Joy. She's already pulled her kids from public school and has enrolled them in a private institution. It's not just the possibility that the government is gathering "intimate" details of her children that concerns Joy, but a whole host of progressive notions that smack of outcome-based education, such as group grading and the elimination of honors courses and high-school valedictorians.
Ballard nodded her head in agreement. "That's real typical, see, of this radical egalitarianism," she said. "You have your heterogeneous groupings, and everybody can learn."
After pausing for a second, Ballard began again in a singsong voice that chimed with mock optimism. "Everybody can learn exactly the same as anyone else as long as they're permitted in the proper environment.
"So, in other words," she continued, this time with an edge in her voice, "we can't have any competition or anything like that and we end up dumbing down. The only way to achieve that is to teach to the lowest ability child, and it's devastating to our system, absolutely devastating."
Joy has found it so offensive that she contacted a law professor at Notre Dame, apparently in the hopes of reclaiming the tax dollars her family has spent on public education.
"I want my money back," she says. "I really don't care what they do in public education anymore. I just want my money back because I don't want to fund it."
Though she has abandoned public education, Joy is clearly the kind of frightened, angry parent that Ballard appeals to most effectively. Just how many others are out there is anyone's guess. Even after two busloads of them showed up at the March 4 meeting, some board members weren't impressed.
"I see a lot of people here," said Rosie Sorrells of Dallas, glancing around at the protesters and their anti-TEKS placards. "But I want to know how many of our parents are truly represented."
That's a question that even Donna Ballard can't answer for certain. Not that she needs an answer in order to continue fighting the new curriculum. Despite a July deadline for passage set by the TEA, Ballard vows to continue rejecting the proposals until she is presented with one she can support. Other board members, who have grown weary of attempts to compromise, say that the ultra-conservatives on the board simply don't have enough votes to continue stalling the TEKS.
And everyone, of course, has heard the rumors that legislators angry over the partisan bickering might introduce a bill that would once again make the State Board of Education an appointed, rather than an elected, panel.
That, more than just about any curriculum that might be adopted, would have a much more devastating effect on Donna Ballard's vision of public education. But it certainly won't cause her to reconsider the world she lives in.
"The story I like to tell is from Little House on the Prairie," she says. "When Walnut Grove grew so big that they had to have a school, they said, 'Hey, let's give ten people the responsibility to oversee the school,' and that was the first school board.
"I know that this is a pretend story," she continues, "but the point is I am one of those that the people of Walnut Grove decided to have represent them, and I take that very seriously.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.