A message for Washington on schools: Don't mess with Texas

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

MADISONVILLE, TEX. -- As vendors sold yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags nearby, Texas State Board of Education member Don McLeroy assured a gathering of Tea Party activists one recent evening that President Obama was going to keep his hands off the schools in the Lone Star State.

There would be no bid for Obama's Race to the Top grant program, no endorsement of new math and English standards that Obama backs. And the state school board, under McLeroy's prodding, would continue its push to adopt social studies standards that set Texas apart from other states because, among other changes, they recast sections on the American Revolution to put more emphasis on Christianity and less on the writings of Thomas Jefferson.

Officials in other states, including Virginia and Alaska, have expressed concern about elements of Obama's ambitious education policy. But here in this Bible Belt town of 4,200, where Washington is seen not as the solution to problems but their cause, Texans are pushing back. Hard.

"Our children will now study some of the unintended consequences of the Great Society, such as the destruction of the black family," said McLeroy, a compact, enthusiastic dentist who keeps a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. "Our students will be taught that this country was founded on biblical principles."

Historians have said many of McLeroy's assertions are dubious and have worried about politicization of such classroom staples as the Revolutionary War and the civil rights movement.

But in Madisonville, where pickups are sold in red, white or blue and "Pray for Our Nation" signs dot lawns of the modest one-story homes, residents embrace local control and look at Washington with caution.

"We've got a good system here, and we don't need anybody messing with it," said Jana Corley, after her son took part in the county rodeo last month.

Texas's rejection of federal education initiatives is good politics, analysts say, especially in a primary season in which Gov. Rick Perry (R) fought off a challenger by shifting rightward.

"You get a lot of issues that the other states are facing but not talking about because they want to be eligible for Race to the Top" money, said Sandy Kress, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and one of the authors of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Obama and his top education officials say their goal is to return power to states, not to grab it. The president's revision of No Child Left Behind would reduce federal mandates for many schools. But Obama wants to require states to shake up their lowest-performing schools by taking aggressive steps such as replacing teachers.

Typical of Obama's view on federal-state relations is his embrace of the movement to adopt common academic standards in states across the country. Republican and Democratic governors are leading that effort. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said states are in control, and he made the common standards a factor in Race to the Top decisions. Many states were disappointed Monday when just two were announced as winners in the first round, but even the losers remain in contention for a program doling out a historic bounty of $4 billion in education support.

Texas was among 10 states that didn't even apply in the first round.

The morning after the Tea Party gathering, Madisonville School Superintendent Keith Smith, who oversees the town's four schools -- all just beyond his office door -- sat and shook his head at the growing power struggle between Washington and Austin. Smith and his schools are caught in the middle.

To him, Austin's version of local control takes away just as much power from him as the federal kind. He said the tug of war about standards and states' rights is just a distraction from more basic questions of equity in statewide school funding.

"The Tea Party people, they seem angry and disenfranchised. You see that in educators, too," he said, as policymakers increasingly dictate what teachers must cover in class. "It's somewhat insulting as an educator to have someone write your curriculum for you."

Madisonville's schools walk a fine line between old-Texas tradition and the kind of data-driven decision-making espoused by federal education officials. In fact, much of Obama's agenda follows from that of his predecessor, who pioneered the approaches during six years as Texas governor.

But with Bush gone, Texans are guarding what's left of local control in schools. In Madisonville, they scrapped a state-approved reading curriculum and bought their own after tests suggested that they needed to do better. A sheaf of fresh benchmark results was recently on high school Principal Keith West's desk.

West, who works from a frugal office that looks like it hasn't been significantly redecorated since the school was built in 1965, said part of what was special about his high school was that it was the only one in town.

"This is where the kids go. All of them," he said: the kids of the workers at the big mushroom plant nearby; the ranchers' kids, some of whom raise the cackling roosters audible on the school grounds; the kids of the people who staff the prison just outside town. His school is about half white, a quarter each Hispanic and African American. Two-thirds of his students are economically disadvantaged. "We don't have a private school. We don't have a charter school," he said. He went to school there. So will his two children.

Although he said he appreciated many of Obama's proposed revisions to No Child Left Behind, the policies supported by Race to the Top don't apply to his town, he said. The district is too tiny for charter schools. And although he said he has an excellent teaching staff, he'd be hard-pressed to find more good teachers in a place as remote as Madisonville if he sacked a bad one.

The future of the Texas curriculum remains unclear. After 11 years on the state school board, McLeroy narrowly lost his Republican primary election. The general election in November could tip the majority to moderates, and some observers speculate that the board could revisit some of its social studies decisions next year.

That doesn't faze McLeroy, who blamed his loss on teachers' groups campaigning against him.

"The bottom line is we're going to have some very, very good standards," McLeroy said.

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