You might say that Donna Bahorich took an old-school approach to proving herself worthy of chairing the State Board of Education, even among some of her critics: She earned it.
That is why her confirmation by the Senate Nominations Committee on Thursday should not be in question. And why the full Senate should support Bahorich’ s reappointment as chair of the 15-member State Board of Education.
I’m not saying that state senators should not press the Houston Republican on issues, such as whether biology standards under review should be limited to the science of evolution or watered down with requirements that undermine the science.
And I’m not suggesting that senators ignore controversies the education board – that sets curriculum standards for Texas public schools and oversees the $37 billion Permanent School Fund – regularly wades into, such as its consideration of a textbook about Mexican-American history and culture. Aside from being racially-insensitive, the book contained 141 errors that scholars pointed out.
Consider this insulting passage from the book: “Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists were very driven, competitive…They were used to their workers putting in a full day’s work, quietly and obediently, and respecting rules, authority, and property. In contrast, Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of “mañana” or “tomorrow” when it came to high-gear production.”
With a deft hand, Bahorich steered the board through that and other such embarrassments, permitting the GOP social conservative bloc on the board to have its say – and at times throw tantrums. All while keeping her eye, and the board’s focus, on improving public schools and engaging more people in the process.
As we witnessed in the case of the textbook, “Mexican American Heritage,” the board landed on the right decision by voting unanimously not to place the book on its preferred adoption list, akin to denying it a Good Housing seal. As such, it’s unlikely that school districts will order or buy the text. She was recognized with a leadership medal from the League of United Latin American Citizens for the way she handled the textbook.
On that front and others, Bahorich has made transparency a key component of the education board’s textbook and curriculum standards review process.
For the first time, instructional materials are available online for public review prior to coming before the board for adoption. That permitted educators, community leaders and parents to weigh in on the Mexican American textbook.
“People can sit in their living rooms in their pajamas and get instructional materials instead of going to a (regional) service center to get them,” Bahorich told me.
That is a big deal, considering that elected members of the board represent individual districts of about 1.6 million people, twice the size of a state senate district with about 800,000 people.
Under Bahorich’s leadership, curriculum standards, such as those for English, Spanish language and reading, also are online for public review before going to the board for final approval. And she has put together major public forums, one dealing with educating a digital generation and the other on educating children in poverty. Those are relevant to public schools, including charters, that educate 5.5 million schoolchildren growing up in a digital world.
First elected in 2012 and reelected in November, Bahorich, 61, is not the enemy of public schools critics predicted she would be, citing her lack of experience with public schools. It’s true she home-schooled her three sons then turned to private, religious schools to fill out their education and extracurricular activities.
She gets good marks from critics for being a more collaborative chair than her GOP predecessors in that post, fostering respectful dialogue, expanding board discussions to include opposing or critical viewpoints, among other things. But she also gets her share of criticism, such as for her position — or lack of one — on public school vouchers.
Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors and opposes right-wing agendas in education and other areas of government, said Bahorich voted against a resolution, which would have put the education board on the record opposing vouchers.
Bahorich says she has not come to a firm conclusion on vouchers or scholarships that permit parents to use public school money to pay for private school tuition. But, she added, “Nothing should be off the table.”
“We should at least talk about them and not immediately reject (vouchers),” she said. “Having no discussion is not serving children.”
Perhaps. But as I said to Bahorich, if the state is going to establish a program or pilot in which public dollars are steered to private schools through vouchers or scholarships, it must level the playing field by erecting comparable accountability standards for both, including requirements that prevent cherry-picking or dumping — pushing voucher students back to public schools after private schools have ejected them.
It’s should not be that those receiving public education money be exempt from state accountability.
There’s also a political reality for keeping Bahorich as chair. Republicans dominate the board, just as they do state government. Gov. Greg Abbott is not about to select a Democrat to chair the board and among the Republican SBOE members, Bahorich is best suited for the chairmanship.
With her, the board might not avoid controversies, but it won’t wander aimlessly in that swamp — as it did before Bahorich.