Last year was marked by Texas lawmakers battling over a law banning critical race theory in schools.

This year, the fight over education moves to the ballot box. Candidates in races up and down the ballot are talking about schools. But a pair of races in Tarrant County will have more of a direct impact on students. Voters will decide two seats on the State Board of Education, the 15-member governing body that sets and reviews policies and standards for Texas schools.

Election dates

Early voting in the primary elections starts on Monday, Feb. 14. Election Day is Tuesday, March 1. To find more information about polling places and voting by mail, visit Tarrant County’s elections website.

Tarrant County is split between Districts 11 and 13. 

Most of Tarrant County is in District 11, which also includes Dallas, Parker, Hood, Somervell and Johnson counties. Republican Pat Hardy has represented the district since 2002 and is seeking her sixth four-year term; the board has no term limits. She faces three opponents in the GOP primary: DC Caldwell, Rebecca Garcia and Joshua Tarbay. Two Democrats — Luis Miguel Sifuentes and Caldwell — also are in the race.

Caldwell, who ran for Fort Worth mayor last year, is on the ballot for not just the GOP and Democratic primaries, but also for the Green and Liberterian parties. While he can do that, the Texas Secretary of State’s office has said the move makes him ineligible for the general election. That effectively makes the Republican primary a three-person race and Sifuentes the presumptive nominee.

The remaining piece of Tarrant County is in District 13, which stretches over into Dallas County. Democrat Aicha Davis, elected in 2018, is seeking her second four-year term on the State Board of Education. Unlike Hardy, Davis isn’t facing an intra-party challenge. However, four Republicans want to flip the seat. The GOP contenders are Natalie Kohn, Ajua Mason, Kathryn Monette and A. Denise Russell.

State Board of Education District 11 covers several counties, including Tarrant, Dallas, Parker, Hood, Somervell and Johnson counties.
State Board of Education District 13 covers two counties: Tarrant and Dallas.

The new map for the 15 State Board of Education districts were drawn in a way to protect its Republican majority. Currently, nine Republicans and six Democrats are on the board. 

Garcia, Kohn, Mason, Monette and Russell did not respond to requests to comment.

Social studies curriculum review

In the contests for both seats, candidates agreed the biggest issue ahead for the State Board of Education is the upcoming social studies curriculum review. 

The board reviews curriculum every 10 years. Board members will work to add new curriculum standards from House Bill 3979, the anti-critical race theory law. The process takes about a year, but the new law requires board members to have the revised standards by Dec. 31.

Critical race theory is a way to examine how race and racism have affected the nation’s policies and is used in high-level college courses. 

The social studies curriculum review is one of the reasons why Hardy is running for reelection. Hardy is best equipped to help the process as a former social studies teacher and as a State Board of Education member who has been through this process twice, she said. The current social studies program is good, but this year’s review will make it even better, Hardy said.

One thing she does not see as an issue is the anti-critical race theory law. 

“There is no CRT in our standards right now,” Hardy said. “The problem is not in the standards. It’s whether or not the teachers take it beyond the standards when they teach it.”

Tarbay, a former Weatherford ISD school board member, wants K-12 social studies to not be politically divisive. He said critical race theory has no place in schools.

HB 3979, though, didn’t go far enough for Tarbay — a viewpoint he shares with Hardy, who wanted a fullout ban of critical race theory in all K-12 subjects. Currently, state law only bans it in social studies classes.

“It’s a good start, but (critical race theory) needs to be clearly defined,” said Tarbay, a Tarrant County College professor who teaches kinesiology. 

Sifuentes, a former educator who lives in Southlake, thought the new law wasn’t based in reality. However, he said if elected he would follow HB 3979 as the board reviews the state’s social studies curriculum.

“We should be equipping our students with the critical thinking skills to be able to talk about sensitive topics, like race, slavery and the Holocaust,” Sifuentes, a former Fort Worth ISD educator, said. “That should be the goal when it comes to our social studies curriculum.”

Davis, the incumbent in District 13 and an educator, said so much is unknown about HB 3979 and all of its implications. She wants students to know all facets of American history and says she is striving to have the social studies update to do so.

“It’s really unfortunate when anything that distracts students from being able to learn about all different parts of history,” Davis said. “It’s unfortunate when our teachers are restricted, and that’s what this bill really, sincerely does.”

Charter schools

The State Board of Education also reviews applications for charter schools. The Texas Education Agency commissioner has the authority to decide whether a charter can set up shop in the state. However, the board can deny the application, forcing a charter to restart its application.

Davis looks at each charter school application individually. She especially looks at the communities charters want to set up in as she decides whether to give a thumbs up or down.

“I have supported some. I have been harder on others,” Davis said. “I just want to make sure any school that opens for students is prepared to deliver a dynamic instructional program and they truly have the resources to be able to do so.”

Hardy, the District 11 incumbent, describes herself as a middle-of-the road vote on charter schools. Sometimes she votes for them. Other times, she doesn’t. She examines each application on its own merits before casting her vote. 

“With me, it’s not that I’m pro-charter school or I’m against charter schools. I am for a good one, meaning there’s a need for that school for one reason or another, or it sets itself apart,” Hardy said.

Charter schools are great as incubators for new programs or new styles of teaching, such as those focused on science and the arts, Tarbay said. As a former school board member, Tarbay recognized that charters should not be in every traditional independent school district.

“I am not a fan of charter schools being used to make profits and incomes for any particular boards of those charters,” said Tarbay, the owner of Parker County Brewing Co.

Sifuentes sees a role for charters to play in the public school system. Some have done great work with students, he said. However, he believes the State Board of Education must ensure traditional public schools receive equitable funding.

“I want to make sure that they’re not drawing away from public schools,” he said. 

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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