The defeat of wingnut candidate Brian Russell, who was backed by departing SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar to succeed her, in the GOP runoff this week is unquestionably good news that will help de-loonify that dysfunctional body. I’m as glad as anyone to see Marsha Farney be the GOP nominee in that race. But let’s be clear that while Farney is a step up from Dunbar and Russell, we shouldn’t expect too much from her.
Farney, of Georgetown, now faces a strong challenge from Austin Democrat Judy Jennings in November.
The two candidates seem strangely similar at first glance: women with doctorates in education whose children attended public schools.
Both also discuss the need for board members to respect teachers as they adopt curriculum standards and textbooks.
They could, however, land on very different sides of the ideological divide that has recently defined the 15-member board. It is sharply split between a tightly knit conservative bloc and a more moderate — and less predictable — group.
Jennings said she was the “only candidate who has consistently advocated for taking the politics out of the State Board of Education, out of the curriculum and the textbook approval process.”
Farney has resisted others’ efforts to assign her a label and said she will be a predominantly conservative voice who aligns herself with the people of her district rather than a board faction.
Jennings’ consultant, however, said Farney tacked far to the right in the runoff as she tried to out-conservative Russell, the favorite of incumbent Cynthia Dunbar and other conservatives on the board.
“That does not inspire confidence in me that she is going to get on the board and stand up to the bloc of zealots,” said consultant Alfred Stanley . “People cannot assume and project upon Marsha Farney what they want to see.”
The Texas Freedom Network, while expressing its happiness at Russell’s defeat, remains wary of Farney.
Farney’s campaign hardly made her look like a moderate. She trumpeted her anti-abortion views as well as her opposition to same-sex marriage — two issues that have nothing to do with the state board. Of course, the religious right took control of the state board over the years by running vicious election campaigns attacking opponents for allegedly wanting to teach students about masturbation and gay sex, distribute condoms and other contraception to kids, promote abortion and other nonsense. So perhaps Farney’s strategy was to inoculate herself against similar attacks and reassure social conservatives that she was a safe vote. In any case, it’s hard to know at this point whether she will align with the board’s far-right faction.
It was Rebecca Osborne, who finished third in the March race, who positioned herself as the moderate choice. Now that Farney has to run against a Democrat in a district that’s mighty purple in November – in 2008, Barack Obama got 48.4% of the vote in SBOE10, and in 2006, Bill Moody got 49.8% – she may try to do the same. If so, that’s all to the good. The difference, of course, is that with Judy Jennings, you’ve got someone who doesn’t have to pivot to present herself as moderate and sensible. Farney’s a better choice than Russell, but Jennings is better than Farney. Why settle for less?