Should a homeschooler be head of the Texas Board of Education?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appoints Donna Bahorich, who homeschooled her children for several years, as chair of the State Board of Education.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor
A first grade classroom at Foerster Elementary, a public school in Houston, Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott has stirred up controversy in Texas after appointing a homeschooling mom as chair of the State Board of Education. 

Donna Bahorich, who will succeed outgoing chair Barbara Cargill, is a Republican from Houston who homeschooled her three sons before sending them to religious private schools. 

Her appointment by Abbott last week has drawn criticism from all ends of the political spectrum, including from her own conservative colleagues. 

“Public school isn’t for everybody, but when 94 percent of our students in Texas attend public schools, I think it ought to be a baseline requirement that the chair of the State Board of Education have at least some experience in that realm, as a parent, teacher, something," Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the State Board of Education, told Texas Public Radio. 

Ms. Bahorich concedes that her background is unorthodox but argues that not having familial ties to the public school system doesn't make her any less qualified for the job. She previously served as a former communications director for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and as president of the Daughters of Liberty Republican Women, and is currently a member of the pastor’s council at Houston Vineyard Church. She has been on the school board for two years.

“My research and my work and my desire and interests have all been in education, so when there was an opportunity for me to run for office it seemed like such a natural fit for me," she said

Others have expressed anger over her nomination, less because of her homeschooling background than her political leanings.

In recent years, the Board of Education has made a series of hotly debated conservative decisions. In 2010, religious conservatives on the board proposed changes to public school social studies standards, including renaming the US slave trade as the "Atlantic triangular trade." That one didn't pass, but one that did was giving Confederate President’s Jefferson Davis speeches equal importance with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The board also drew criticism in 2014 when it approved new social studies textbooks that claimed that Moses inspired the American system of democracy and that country music is culturally relevant while hip-hop is not. Bahorich voted to approve these textbooks. 

Bahorich's appointment also comes amid rising concerns that Governor Abbott has allowed homeschooling groups to have too much political influence. Earlier this month, he vetoed Senate Bill 359, a measure that would have allowed physicians to detain patients if they are deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. Abbott's veto came after the Texas Home School Coalition had spoken out against the law, saying that they viewed it as an attack on parental rights.

The Texas Freedom Network, a group that has been fighting creationism, right-wing historical revisionism, and abstinence-only education in the classroom, says Bahorich's appointment "almost guarantees that the board will continue to put culture war agendas ahead of educating more than 5 million Texas kids."

"The governor has appointed as board chair an ideologue who voted to adopt new textbooks that scholars sharply criticized as distorting American history, who rejected public education for her own family, and who supports shifting tax dollars from neighborhood public schools to private and religious schools through vouchers," TFN President Kathy Miller said in a statement

Bahorich says one of her first initiatives will be to have a roundtable discussion with textbook publishers about their vision for the future. Her published platform also includes offering more technical training in high schools, increasing abstinence education, and "making sure instructional materials are accurate in both content and perspective."

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