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State Board of Education chairwoman pleasantly surprises critics


Highlights

Donna Bahorich needs to be reappointed by Gov. Greg Abbott and confirmed by the Texas Senate.

She said concerns about her appointment as State Board of Education chairwoman in 2015 were understandable.

Critics of the board said that Bahorich’s leadership will be tested in the new year.

Donna Bahorich, whose assignment as State Board of Education chairwoman in 2015 garnered backlash from fellow board members and education policymakers, will be up for reappointment in February.

But less controversy is expected to shadow her probable confirmation this time.

The reason — according to one of the loudest critics of her appointment in 2015, fellow Republican and outgoing Board Member Thomas Ratliff of Mount Pleasant — is that she hasn’t turned into the political climber she was expected to be. Nor has she returned the board to its divisive past.

“I threw a little fit on Twitter when she was appointed because I didn’t feel like she was qualified,” Ratliff said. “What she has helped me understand is that you don’t have to be a part of public ed to have a heart for kids, and she listens to her district more than the average SBOE member.”

In order to keep her position, Bahorich, a 61-year-old Republican from Houston, must be appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott again and approved by the state Senate by February.

Board critics say Bahorich’s leadership will be tested right around her potential confirmation hearing when the board tackles how the theory of evolution should be taught to Texas students.

But others say her work as chairwoman over the past two years will speak for itself.

When Bahorich assumed the role, critics questioned her ability to lead the board — which oversees the state’s public education system — because she had chosen to home-school her three sons. Critics also worried that as a former staff member for then-state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, she would corrode the public education system. Patrick has been a vocal supporter of school choice, a divisive idea that would allow public money to pay for alternative education options, such as private school, for students who choose to leave traditional public schools.

READ: School choice gets lukewarm reception at Texas House hearing

Bahorich said she understands why people were concerned but said that she has defied those expectations.

“To some people who didn’t know me or who wouldn’t understand why, they asked, was my home-schooling some kind of statement against public school? To me, they were all legitimate questions and rightfully asked. You can’t be upset with people for asking intelligent questions,” Bahorich said.

Putting differences aside

Bahorich’s acts as chairwoman include creating a statewide roundtable discussion on digital learning and educating children living in poverty. She advocated posting copies of textbooks online to allow the public to review and comment before the board adopts them. Recently, a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook for high school students was widely criticized by both scholars and activists, prompting the board to reject the textbook. Some of the board’s biggest critics applauded the move.

“The reason so many people got access to it is because the board has made it all online, and that was a need that I saw right when I got elected,” Bahorich said.

She also spearheaded a series of regional discussions and an online survey to solicit input on the embattled State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. From those efforts, a report was compiled and sent to the Texas Legislature.

She appointed Erika Beltran, a Democratic board member with extensive knowledge of education policy, to a state commission to evaluate Texas’ public education assessment and accountability systems. Ratliff said the appointment showed Bahorich’s bipartisan efforts.

She chalks up her willingness to put differences aside to her deeply religious, small-town upbringing in West Virginia.

Bahorich, whose father was a preacher and a used-car salesman and whose mother spent most of her childhood caring for her ill brother, was the first to go to college — Virginia Tech, where she earned a financial management degree.

She said she chose to home-school her sons because her family moved around so much for her husband’s job as a geophysicist. When her kids entered college, she decided to test the political waters, first as a volunteer director for the Harris County Republican Party in 2004 and then as communications director for Patrick. After leaving his staff in 2011, she was approached about running for the State Board of Education and won in 2013.

Big test ahead

Kathy Miller, head of the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network, which has been critical of the board’s actions, admits she hasn’t felt the same heartburn about Bahorich that she felt when she first learned of the appointment. However, she said the test of Bahorich’s leadership is yet to come.

The board will streamline the social studies and science curriculum standards — which dictate what is taught in classrooms and what appears in textbooks — in the next year or so. The board traditionally has been divided on how topics such as religion, slavery, race, cultural issues and the theory of evolution should be taught to the state’s 5.3 million public education students.

“She has demonstrated a willingness to talk to everybody and listen to all sides, but the test is right around the corner,” Miller said.

Bahorich hasn’t gone into detail about her position on divisive education issues, deferring questions instead to teachers and scholars who she said have more expertise. A supporter of public charter schools, she also has said she hasn’t taken a position on some of the school choice ideas that are being proposed for the next legislative session.

Miller said Bahorich hasn’t voted differently from the far right bloc of the board as chairwoman.

However, some of her biggest supporters, including Zeph Capo, president of the Houston teacher’s union, said they have confidence that Bahorich will not let divisive topics entangle the board if she’s reappointed.

“The last few years that she has been chair … the board seems to be more functional than (in) the past — people actually working together … focusing on real issues of importance and less on crazy, ridiculous curriculum standards,” Capo said. “One chair is not going to corral all of that all of the time, but it seems less of what the board is known for now than in the past.”



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