The Texas Freedom Network has one litmus test when it comes to electing members to the State Board of Education: Do they love public education?
Sure, the question sounds a sappy, but the State Board of Education was stacked, for a number of years, with those who had nothing but contempt for those they labeled educrats or WASPs, which stands for "whiney-ass school people."
Such disdain is election year fodder. And the Texas Freedom Network, no doubt, has benefited from the publicity surrounding the so-called culture wars over Thomas Jefferson and evolution during SBOE's recent adoption of new academic standards.
More than 600 people packed a ballroom at the George R Brown Convention Center on Saturday morning for TFN's session, "Ignorance Is Not a Texas Value: Electing a Smarter State Board of Education," at the Texas Democratic Convention.
"We are reaching out, and it seems to be working," said TFN's Kathy Miller, who led the session. "Four years ago, even two years ago, we'd never have seen 600 people show up at a workshop."
Turnout at the polls is key in SBOE elections, Miller told the group. While each State Board of Education member represents roughly 1.6 million people in Texas, voter knowledge of candidates is often limited and turnout typically low. And those who turn out can have a major impact on the board, which stands in the balance between a bloc of social conservatives and their moderate-liberal counterparts.
Even those whose fate to return to the board seems assured can go down in an instant. During the party primaries at the end of May, incumbents Gail Lowe and Michael Soto were taken out. Sue Melton, a retired Lampasas educator, knocked off long-time member and former chair Lowe. Soto, up for a second turn, was taken down by a social worker Marisa Perez, whom few in the party claimed to know.
Such turns in election results indicate that the results aren't always pegged on conservative versus liberal. Miller said the problem is that most voters simply don't know their State Board of Education members, and only a few care until groups like the Texas Freedom Network or the Liberty Institute rally the party base.
For Democrats, talk of former chair Don McLeroy -- who said he believed that dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth together -- is a rallying cry. McLeroy was unseated in the last election by the more moderate Thomas Ratliff. Still, Miller doesn't hesitate to quote McLeroy's comment during her workshops, "Somebody has to stand up to the experts!"
"It's not partisan," Miller said of TFN after the session. "If someone loves education, if they're willing to listen to those who teacher are kids and the scholars on the subject matter, then he is worthy of election."
On Saturday, Miller and others with the Texas Freedom Network walked right up to the edge of endorsements without naming candidates. Saturday's workshop session was intended to be non-partisan, and Miller says the group can and has endorsed candidates in both the Republican and Democratic primaries in past years..