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.
"This is not in the books anywhere," Perkins says. "We never ever saw that."
"It worked," Perkins acknowledges.
Although the mailing boasted Ballard's picture and logo, Ballard says she didn't see it before it went out.
"I would not have done that," she says of the brochure, "but on the other hand, that picture is nothing compared to material I've gotten from the Austin AIDS Services. I mean, I have pictures of men having oral sex -- that's what kids could get if they call the hot lines."
Ballard and the other two new Republicans were recruited to run by incumbent board member Bob Offut of San Antonio, who along with Montie Hasie of Lubbock composed the religious right's pre-election contingent on the board. Groups such as the Texas State Teachers Association and People for the American Way worry that the strengthened presence of Christian conservatives on the board, along with the growing influence of their organized pressure groups, could influence moderate Republican board members to embrace an extremist agenda.
Jack Christie says those fears are unfounded. A chiropractor from west Houston who's been on the board for four years and encouraged Ballard to run, Christie describes himself as a "moderate Republican who happens to be an environmentalist," and, he adds, a Catholic. Christie acknowledges he didn't see any of the material mailed out against the incumbent Democrats, but he says he's "very comfortable with the new members, and I'm not worried at all that they're going to have an extreme right-wing agenda ...."
What he foresees is simply a shift from a dominant "liberal" philosophy to a conservative one -- a return to "common sense" that he says is more reflective of the wishes of the vast majority of voters and parents in Texas.
As an example of what sort of changes might be expected under the new board, Christie suggests that the teaching of evolution as a hard scientific fact may shortly be a thing of the past in Texas schools. "The conservative viewpoint ," he says, "would be, 'Give us the pros and cons of the theory of evolution.' No one's asking for creationism to be taught in science books, they're just saying give the positives and negatives on the theory of evolution." (Which raises some interesting possibilities for the teaching of other sciences, er, theories....)
Christie also suggests the outcome of the struggle over high school-level health textbooks would have been different if the new board members had been in office. Requests for about 900 changes in the textbooks were lodged by the public or board members while the texts were being considered, most through presentations organized by the religious right; Christie says he agreed with about 600 of the proposed changes. The board ultimately adopted about 300 revisions, deletions and additions, which were agreed to by four of the five publishers of the textbooks being considered for adoption.
Christie says the new board probably would have asked the publishers for the 600 changes he favored. The Democrat-dominated board only "acquiesced" to 300, Christie avers, because of "pressure from Texans in general, not the religious right."
Among the more outrageous objections to textbook material lodged by the minions of the religious right were to the inclusion of a number for a child abuse hot line and to a picture of a woman with a briefcase (an objection, Christie acknowledges, that was "silly"). Then there was the demand that high schoolers be instructed that a woman won't be able to bond with her newborn unless she breast feeds.
One addition the board did demand in the books, Mary Perkins notes, was the inclusion of the incontestable fact (you can look it up) that sodomy is illegal in Texas -- not exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from a bunch of wild-eyed liberals intent on promoting homosexuality in the schools.
On the other hand, the majority of board members did hold fast in the face of demands for the removal of drawings demonstrating self-administered testicular and breast examinations. They probably figured that 16, 17 and 18 year olds -- especially ones who, say, might have been exposed to the works of Texans for Governmental Integrity -- could handle clinical drawings of parts of their bodies.
One of the targets of Ballard and the other new board members is Texas' continued participation in the federal Goals 2000 program, which had its beginnings in the Bush administration as a way of bringing American schoolchildren up to the academic standards many of their foreign counterparts are achieving. It is aimed at ensuring that younger schoolchildren learn the basics.
Under the program, Texas school districts could be eligible to apply for up to $60 million in grants over two years. The primary objective of the districts' first-year participation in the program, according to the state board's application to be a part of Goals 2000, would be to "ensure that all fourth-grade students are fully proficient" in the basic reading, writing and math skills measured by the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests.
Hard to find fault with that, right?
Wrong, according to Donna Ballard, who professes to have spent a good deal of time poring over the federal and state documents related to the program. She says Goals 2000 will result in "an immense bureaucratic nightmare" and is actually part of a "very complex," long-in-the-works plan to impose federal control on local schools. One of the requirements for schools that receive Goals 2000 grants, she says, is that they provide "school-length social services."
"That has never meant anything other than school-based health clinics," claims Ballard, who says such a requirement would saddle schools with enormous costs. Although she doesn't say so, you don't have to be Jocelyn Elders to figure out what sort of latex and lambskin products Ballard and others who object to Goals 2000 fear would be distributed from school-based clinics. And Ballard did say it in her campaign, claiming that Mary Perkins "wants to emphasize condoms and I want to emphasize calculus."
Annette Cootes, the communications director of the 95,000-member Texas State Teachers Association, says those objections are silly, that there's nothing in Goals 2000 that would require schools to operate health clinics or that would lead to the doling out of condoms to students.
Cootes notes that in Texas the program would allow local school districts to determine how they would use the money to meet the objectives, and she says that most of the grants would probably go to poor districts to hire more tutors or to extend the school day.
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"It's the least obtrusive federal program we've ever had," she says.
The new board members, Cootes says, "are just idiots."
Donna Ballard, however, is no idiot. She's energetic and well-spoken and not so easy to caricature. She made her first run for office after several years of going to Austin to attend meetings of the state board, and she's savvy enough politically to couch some of her more extreme beliefs in moderate and thoughtful-sounding rhetoric.
Ballard, for instance, says that she's not totally sold on the idea of school vouchers. But after explaining how she'd first like to see the results of the state's expected experimentation with charter schools, she allows that she's mostly concerned that a vouchers program would result in state or federal control of schools that would be getting the vouchers.
You know, like those little church-based schools that would be receiving taxpayers' dollars but wouldn't have to bother teaching the "pros and cons" of evolution, or that the world is round, for that matter.
One more thing about Donna Ballard: she's dedicated and attentive, something that average Texans who might prefer to be represented by Mary Knotts Perkins haven't been of late.