Is SBOE Chair Ellis Beholden to Teachers Union?

State Board of Education seal | Image by Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune

The Texas State Board of Education chair has seemingly yielded to the body’s left-leaning members by purportedly endorsing a slimmed-down version of a proposed suitability rubric for instructional materials.

Board chair Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) put forward the one-page rubric for the board’s consideration, but some are claiming the document does not do nearly enough to comply with state laws restricting the teaching of critical race theory and other proscribed subjects.

In a statement to The Dallas Express, SBOE member Julie Pickren (R-Pearland) stressed the significance of the rubric, which essentially serves as a class content gateway for Texas schools:

“The 1605 Suitability Rubric will provide guardrails for Texas instructional materials that provide academic rigor while ensuring instructional materials are compliant with all state laws. It is time for Texas to provide an excellent education for students that increases literacy and teaches Texas values while blocking critical race theory, pornography, and common core from our classrooms, as required by Texas law.”

Political consultant Aaron Harris suggested to The Dallas Express that Ellis’ proposed rubric might stem from the political support Ellis has been getting from left-leaning professional associations. The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), for instance, endorsed Ellis last year.

“Obviously, we’ve had, you know, big fights going on with education, school choice, all this type of stuff. The governor has made all these school reforms a priority. Meanwhile, we’ve got a chair on the SBOE who’s kind of pushing back against the governor,” Harris said. “He’s the only Republican [TSTA] endorsed [for SBOE] with all the Democrats who, of course, oppose all the governor’s reforms.”

Additionally, Ellis is currently chair-elect of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), an organization that seemingly endorses, at least through its publication, critical race theory and left-leaning positions pertaining to gender.

“A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, NASBE elevates state board members’ voices in national and state policymaking, facilitates the exchange of informed ideas, and supports members in advancing equity and excellence in public education for students of all races, genders, and circumstances,” reads the organization’s website.

HB 1605, which was passed by the Texas Legislature and enacted into law this year, gives the SBOE the authority to screen instructional materials for school systems under the state’s jurisdiction to make sure they comply with Texas law and do not contain inappropriate content. The mechanism by which the agency exercises this oversight is through the suitability rubric.

“The State Board of Education is a 15-member board. There’s five Democrats and 10 Republicans, and you know, quite a few of those Republicans are — to put it nicely — moderates, Keven being one of them. All they have to do is side with the five Democrats and continue to either allow passively or actively help the teacher union agenda,” Harris said.

“The question has to be asked: with all of Keven Ellis’ leftist ties and pushback against the governor’s agenda, why is he still the chairman of the SBOE? He’s currently a holdover, so the governor could change him out any day of his choosing,” Harris added.

The SBOE is set to consider the rubric on Wednesday.

“Keven and his friends are trying to push a one-page rubric that achieves absolutely nothing … [while] others are wanting a more robust, meaningful rubric. And so we’ll see if the teachers unions and Keven prevail or a … conservative rubric prevails,” Harris said.

Chair Ellis and Gov. Greg Abbott could not immediately be reached for comment.

NOTE: This article was updated at 12 p.m. on December 8, 2023, to include a statement from SBOE Member Pickren.

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