Friday, May 01, 2009

Legislators may strip education board of power

Legislators may strip education board of power
Bipartisan criticism sidelines confirmation of chairman.

By Kate Alexander
Friday, May 01, 2009
The legislative session so far has not been kind to the State Board of Education.

Senate confirmation of Board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, is dead in the water, the Nominations Committee chairman said Thursday.

The House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment Monday that would move the investment decisions about the $17.5 billion Permanent School Fund away from the board to an appointed council of financial professionals.

And a bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill to take away the elected board's authority over curriculum and textbooks.

A convergence of high-profile, bloody curriculum battles and controversial comments from some board members caught the attention of the legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, who could leave the somewhat obscure body headless and toothless after this session.

Some of the legislators' concerns are rooted in policy differences, others in politics. Either way, the legislators are not pleased.

Board member Pat Hardy, R-Weatherford, said the efforts to diminish the authority of the board are misguided because no one else is going to put the same time and attention into these important education issues.

But, Hardy said, "we have drawn the ire of those people for a reason, because we have done some screwball things. ... We have managed to ignore a lot of things that (legislators) have very kindly asked us to take care of."

Hardy, who has often been at loggerheads with the board's conservative faction, laid that problem at the feet of McLeroy, a religious conservative who has been accused of trying to inject religion into science classes.

McLeroy said he did not want to comment on his confirmation.

First elected in 1998, McLeroy, a dentist, was appointed board chairman by Gov. Rick Perry in the summer of 2007.

Last week, McLeroy ran into a buzz saw during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Nominations Committee. Democrats Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and Kirk Watson of Austin skewered McLeroy about his leadership, particularly during the recent brouhaha over science curriculum standards.

"You've created a hornet's nest like I've never seen," Shapleigh said at the hearing.

Committee Chairman Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, said Thursday that McLeroy's nomination will be left pending in committee because there is enough opposition on the floor of the Senate to block his confirmation, which requires approval of two-thirds of the senators.

McLeroy would keep his seat as a board member even if he was not confirmed as chairman by the end of the legislative session.

Perry would then pick a chairman from among the other board members who would not face Senate confirmation until 2011.

Senate Democrats alone could stop McLeroy's confirmation. But Republicans, too, have taken issue with the board.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, authored the bill that would remove the board's textbook and curriculum authority; it is pending in the Education Committee.

He said the ideological direction of the board is all right with him now that Republicans are in charge.

"What happens when the worm turns and my party is no longer in the majority?" Seliger asked.

He said the long-term best practice is to take the partisanship and politics out of the decisions about educational materials.

Similarly, Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the investment of the Permanent School Fund needs to be removed from the "hot political environment" that is the State Board of Education.

A key conservative leader, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said he objected to stripping the board of any of its education oversight, though not its role in the Permanent School Fund.

But he said that the legislators' wrath might signal to the board that it needs to look internally and focus on its core responsibilities.

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