As the 2020 election approaches, the candidates for the Texas State Board of Education face issues spanning from curriculum controversies to campaigning during the pandemic.
Members of the Texas State Board of Education are in charge of setting the standard curriculum for the state’s 5 million public school students, which includes reviewing and implementing instructional materials and setting graduation requirements. Having informative, engaging, and relevant textbooks and materials is crucial for Texas students, especially in the face of COVID-19, which has shifted the way education works for everyone.
Houston Public Media reached out to the candidates running in Districts 6 and 8, which encompass large chunks of Houston and the surrounding area, to talk about curriculum issues, their policy plans, and the effects of COVID-19 on education as well as this election cycle.
The seat in District 4, which covers much of Houston as well, is not currently up for reelection.
Whitney Bilyeu and Audrey Young did not provide answers to our specific questions. This story will be updated if they do.
Michelle Palmer, a Democrat, is a Texas teacher who has taught math, language arts, history, government, and social studies. She is running for the State Board of Education because she says she is concerned and frustrated by factual inaccuracies she sees in her students’ curriculum.
Texas has been criticized for discrepancies in textbooks before, including the mention of Moses and creationist language in the U.S. History curriculum, inaccuracies about the Civil War, and the lack of climate change information and comprehensive sex education in the science and health curriculums.
“My core platform is to remove the propaganda that is currently infesting many of the curricula, including health, several history courses, and science,” she says.
She also wants to implement what she calls an evidence-based curriculum about healthy safe sex and consent practices, which would actively teach about consent and how to avoid victim blaming. She hopes that this will help lower the number of rapes in Texas.
“We should be teaching our students what does consent look like, why should we have consent, how you ask for consent, and so forth,” she says in a campaign video.
Palmer says she would like Texas students to be able to see themselves reflected within the curriculum, and supports the idea of implementing an anti-racist curriculum, which she hopes would have students learn about the histories of Black, Asian, Native, Hispanic and Latino Americans, as well as women’s history and LGBTQ history.
She advocates for more accountability and transparency on how tax dollars are spent, and for standardization between charter schools and public schools on how they serve special education students.
To combat the digital divide, especially during the pandemic, Palmer suggests that schools should give out laptops to families in poverty, and that Texas as a state should regulate wireless internet like a utility, so that everyone can have access to it.
The State Board of Education does not make the decision to send students back to school during the pandemic. However, Palmer says she would ask the TEA not to force districts with high numbers of cases into in-person classes, while noting some parents’ needs for in-person classes.
“I wish that there were more options available, like only bringing in students who are special education and English language learners, and you know the ones that absolutely need that in-person one-on-one interaction,” she says.
As for campaigning in the COVID-19 environment, she says she has volunteers who are helping her with online campaigning, phone banking, writing postcards, and putting out signs at voting locations.
“Every little thing that we can think of since we can’t go out and actually meet people, we are doing,” she says.
Republican Will Hickman worked as an engineer for Exxon for four years, and then for Shell Oil as an intellectual property lawyer. He is a graduate of public schools and says he wants Texas public education to serve all students and prepare them for their futures.
His primary plan is to create “Flight Plans” for Texas eighth graders, which are personalized high school curriculums for each student to help them prepare for their plans after high school, whether that means going to college or trade school, starting a career, or enlisting in the military.
“I would implement a new required eighth grade course. This course would have testing of each student to determine what they like and what they are good at, would hear from a number of different careers, and would have each student work with a counselor to define their goals, plans, and a customized high school curriculum to prepare them to achieve their goals,” he says.
He says he wants to focus on innovative strategies that foster high quality education and curriculum that include the usual subjects and also financial literacy, problem solving, and employability skills.
“Each student when they get out of high school should have some sort of hope, or dream, or something they’re working towards,” he says.
Hickman says he wants to allow access to educational choice and charter schools to make sure parents can find a school to meet their child’s needs, arguing that parents are in the best position to do so.
Hickman calls for financial and academic transparency and accountability with tax dollars.
When asked about the controversies in the Texas curriculum and a potential anti-racist curriculum, he emphasized the importance of preparing students for their futures.
“First and most important, racism has no place in Texas, particularly in Texas schools,” he says. “I have great conversations across the district, and when we focus on the best interests of the kids, we can avoid controversies.”
Similar to his Democratic opponent, he believes that to minimize the digital divide all students should have access to a laptop and to Wi-Fi, and that schools should provide tech support and teacher office hours for struggling students.
In terms of COVID-19, Hickman acknowledges that opening and closing schools is not an easy decision, and he supports the TEA’s approach of letting each family weigh the risks and make a decision in their best interest.
As for his campaign, he has been using many of the virtual methods available.
“I am still meeting with anyone and everyone who is interested in education,” he says. “Many zoom meetings and phone calls, lots of emails and texts, and some in person meetings. Election night we will find out if it was effective.”
Whitney Bilyeu, the Libertarian candidate, is a real estate agent who worked as a teacher for Houston ISD from 2000 to 2004, and as an instructional specialist with Tomball ISD 2004 to earlier this year. She was recently elected the chair for the Libertarian Party of Texas.
In her 2014 bid for State Senate, she said she believed education should be handled on a state level with more local control of the school systems, and that the federal government should not be involved.
“I support the complete and total rejection of federal funding for education, along with the rejection of any nationally standardized curriculum. I support the nullification of No Child Left Behind,” she said on her now-deleted 2014 campaign website.
Republican Audrey Young is a public educator who has taught language arts, speech therapy, and special education.
She says that standardized testing should not play a role in students’ graduation or promotion, and that civics should be a graduation requirement.
Young also says she wants to seek more accountability for nonprofit charter schools and to propose the establishment of an ethics committee for school board training in order to have accountability and recourse for non-compliance.
She says that local districts should have the final say on textbooks and instructional materials, which she thinks should still be approved by the State Board of Education.
“The children of Texas are the primary focus and I will work with other board members and constituents to sustain the State Board of Education’s progress toward continuous educational improvement and objectively seek answers to questions and challenges as they arise,” she said in a Facebook post.
Audra Rose Berry is a business owner, veteran, and mother of three Texas public school students running as a Libertarian in the race.
She says that the details of curriculum should be set on a local level, with only a basic outline from the state, and that there should be more local involvement and less state and federal involvement.
“I am running for State Board of Education District 8 because I believe education, like everything else, is best ‘governed’ at the lowest possible level – in this case, the parents and those they entrust their children’s education to,” she wrote in a recent Facebook post.
Berry says that she would like to see more open discussion about facts and theories in science and history. She also says that she supports age-appropriate sex education programs that teach more than abstinence, with previews of the curriculum provided to the parents, who can then decide if their child can attend.
When asked about COVID-19 and virtual learning, she said that she does not think virtual learning is necessary.
“Personally, outside of positive test cases, I don’t believe there is a need for distance learning,” she says. “Unless a student or member of their household has tested positive, all students should be back in school.”
In terms of campaigning during the pandemic, she says that she answers questions from voters and from various news outlets, while utilizing her campaign Facebook page.
Subscribe to Today in Houston
Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.