Uproar over the evolution curriculum. Divides over religious influences in American history. A board member who called public schools a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion."
Even to some Republican challengers in Tuesday's primary election, Texas' influential State Board of Education has image issues.
"The creationism and evolution issues have overshadowed what the board does," said candidate Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist. "I don't think everything they do is bad. But they have a real PR problem."
Ratliff is one of several Republicans trying to unseat some of the most prominent Christian conservatives on the board, which adopts Texas school curriculum standards on everything from science to social studies. Twenty-two candidates are vying for eight seats up for election, five of which are held by Republicans.
Social conservatives control the 15-member board, and liberal observers view the primary as an opportunity to purge the board of some of its most far-right members.
Other challengers see a chance to bring an even more conservative bent to the education board.
"I think the election is a right-way, wrong-way referendum on the future of the board," said Brian Russell, 40, an Austin attorney running for an open board seat. "The board has done great work and has been going the right way."
Board members have clout far beyond the Lone Star State. Textbook publishers have few customers bigger than Texas, giving the state significant influence over the content of books marketed across the country.
As culture-war divisions escalate, the board has become a battleground for social conservatives and liberal watchdogs, each accusing the other of imposing ideological agendas into what about 4.8 million K-12 students learn in Texas classrooms.
Scientists and teachers from around the country stormed the Capitol last year when the board reviewed how evolution is taught. In a partial defeat for conservatives, the board ultimately decided that Texas schools would no longer have to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. Teachers would still be encouraged to consider "all sides" of scientific theories.
In March, guidelines for dictating what students learn about history will get a first vote. That is why despite the focus on the Republican gubernatorial primary between Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the races for education board seats are commanding unusual attention.
"We've never seen this many of the religious right faction opposed by challengers," said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the liberal Texas Freedom Network. "It's clear the first step has been taken. There are candidates who have seen enough of the nonsense."
Republican incumbent Don McLeroy defended the board, saying it has achieved balance.
"There is nothing conservative about what we did in English. Nothing conservative about what we did in science," McLeroy said of the board's record. "It just shows how left things get with the uncritical examination of evolution."
McLeroy is a favorite target of board critics. The 63-year-old dentist, who has served on the board for 10 years, is a creationist who believes Earth is only 6,000 years old and that the Christian influences of the founding fathers are important to studying American history.
Ratliff, his opponent, said he concedes that McLeroy never tried foisting his creationism beliefs into textbooks, although the Legislature removed McLeroy as board chairman following the science curriculum fight. McLeroy said opponents use his personal beliefs to paint him as "dumb and stupid" while willfully ignoring the board's successes.
Christian conservatives began building their presence from one seat 15 years ago to seven of the 10 GOP seats now. Among those up for grabs in the primary is that of Cynthia Dunbar, who is not running for re-election after serving a single four-year term. Dunbar drew criticism for her comments that public education is a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion" in her book "One Nation Under God."
She is endorsing Russell, who said other Republican challengers are disguised moderates.
"I'm not trying to out-conservative anyone," said Ratliff, 42, whose race has no Democratic challenger in the Nov. 2 general election. "My race isn't about the best Republican. My race is about the best to help public schools."
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