09/14/2010 02:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Overturning the Texas School Board Madness? It's Possible

In the circus that is the Texas State Board of Education (SBoE), no act has become more troubling than that of incumbent Ken Mercer. Mercer is, after all, the person who has defended the SBoE's attack on evolution by writing, in an op-ed piece in the San Antonio Express News, the following bizarre sentence: "For example, have you ever seen a dog-cat, or a cat-rat?"

In fact, I'm certain you haven't seen a "dog-cat" or a "cat-rat." But then again, evolutionary theory doesn't predict that such hypothetical organisms would ever exist. Such details aren't going to get in Mercer's way, though.

Mercer is up for reelection to his District 5 seat on the SBoE, and he's campaigning on his role in the Board's decisions to attack evolution last year, to rewrite history this year and to protect third graders from a popular mathematics textbook two years ago. At every turn, Mercer sees religion playing the dominant role -- even in basic mathematics education! Although the math text was used successfully in many districts across the state to improve student performance, Mercer bought the argument offered by Educational Research Analysts, described by the Dallas Morning News as "a Christian conservative group." Educational Research Analysts offered the following in-depth criticism of Everyday Math: "Replacing standard algorithms with haphazard searches for personal meaning unconstitutionally establishes New Age religious behavior in public school Math instruction." [Emphasis in the original]

Mercer's opponent, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, is not shy about voicing her opinions about Mercer's positions. In an interview with me last week, Bell-Metereau, referring to Mercer's "dog-cat" absurdity said, "Such ignorance is almost staggering. It shows that he's discussing the issues at such a level of nonsense." She went on to lament that "it's like arguing with a five-year-old about the tooth fairy."

And that's where Bell-Metereau's argument comes up short. "Arguing with a five-year-old" about the tooth fairy or anything else means that although they both have something to say, Mercer has refused to engage his opponent in any formal debate. In fact, he's opting to boycott the September 28 debate being sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Mercer is hiding behind the advice of Texas Republican party chair Steve Munisteri who recommended he skip the debate because the League of Women Voters is "unsuitable and unqualified to serve as a neutral, non-partisan debate sponsor." The League of Women Voters?

Bell-Metereau, an English professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is a thoughtful candidate who is troubled by both Mercer's positions and the SBoE's actions. She believes that if there's some turnover on the Board, with people like herself replacing extremists like Ken Mercer, the Board will be able to revisit some of the egregious curricular decisions made in recent years.

This is her first attempt at electoral politics, and she's running, in part, because she's upset with the Board's consistent refusal to respect expert opinion. Past Board chair and creationist Don McLeroy made the case against expert opinion clearly and succinctly at a Board meeting during the evolution fiasco. Rather than rebutting the data offered by experts on evolution, he simply ranted. "I disagree with these experts," McLeroy said. "Somebody's gotta stand up to experts."

Mercer stands fully-behind McLeroy and went so far as to claim that his non-reappointment to the chair's position by the Texas Senate was due to McLeroy being a Christian. In a bizarre comparison, Mercer compared McLeroy to Carrie Prejean, the Miss USA contestant who spoke out against homosexuality during her beauty pageant interview. As I said above, Mercer believes religion plays a dominant role in every aspect of Texas politics.

Rather than relying on experts, Mercer seems content to permit citizens to decide on scientific ideas. He regularly notes that his constituents often write to him about what should be taught in the curriculum. Bell-Metereau likens this way of deciding curricular content to permitting people "to vote on what time it is. The Board is not doing its duty if they're just reflecting the opinions of their constituents" rather than offering Texas school children a world class education or even a nominally adequate one.

Beyond the obvious craziness, Bell-Metereau sees some very troubling similarities with the SBoE's attack on science and its attack on social science. In both cases, she argues, the Board has opted to remove the material that provides the context for meaningful study. As the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky has said, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Remove evolution as the centerpiece of biological evolution and students are presented merely with a random collection of facts. Within the social science curriculum, the Board has opted, in Bell-Metereau's words, to include "a random list of thinkers," rather than provide a context for learning. She argues that memorizing names of people associated with the Enlightenment is very different from learning what the Enlightenment is all about. Speaking about both science and social science, she laments that "without a context, you can't explain and predict. Education should teach people how the world works."

Voters in Texas's 5th District have the opportunity to put an end to the embarrassing and anti-intellectual actions that have diminished education across the state, and that's an opportunity that will likely impact text book choices around the rest of the United States. I, for one, hope that they opt to do just that by replacing Ken Mercer's madness with Rebecca Bell-Metereau's thoughtfulness.