Five candidates vying to join the State Board of Education (from left) Inga Cotton, Robert Morrow, Lani Popp, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, and Letti Bresnehan. Credit: Courtesy / Facebook and Wikimedia Commons

Five candidates, including three Republicans and two Democrats, hope to replace longtime State Board of Education member Ken Mercer, who has represented the district that spans from North Bexar County east to Travis County for the last 14 years as a conservative fixture on the Republican-dominated board.

Mercer did not seek reelection, leaving his District 5 seat open for the next four-year term that runs from 2021 to 2025. District 5 stretches from north of San Antonio’s downtown up to San Saba County and east to Austin, encompassing small Bexar County cities, including Alamo Heights, Shavano Park, and Hollywood Park.

The five candidates hoping to succeed the San Antonio Republican seek to join a board that sets curriculum standards, reviews and adopts textbooks, establishes graduation requirements, and rejects or approves proposed charter schools. The board has often attracted national media attention with ideological debates about what should be taught in schools. Members have debated how much slavery contributed to the Civil War’s start and whether students should learn evolution or creationism.

Eight of the board’s 15 seats will be on the ballot in November 2020 and early voting begins on Feb. 18 for the March 3 primary election.

The Republicans running to replace Mercer include Inga Cotton, founder and executive director of nonprofit San Antonio Charter Moms; Robert Morrow, a former chairman of the Travis County Republican Party; and Lani Popp, a speech language pathologist for Northside Independent School District. Two Democrats also are seeking the seat.

Mercer and several other state board members have endorsed Popp, who has worked in both public and private school systems. Popp did not respond to interview requests in time for publication, but listed priorities on her campaign website that include ensuring historically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate curriculum standards, reviewing textbooks to prevent bias, and reforming Texas’ “broken” state standardized testing system.

Cotton operates the nonprofit organization San Antonio Charter Moms, which connects parents with resources for school choice. After observing what she perceived as a change in tone and atmosphere of the charter application process at the SBOE, Cotton decided to run for a seat.

“I’ve watched the charter application process pretty closely for many years, so I feel like I would be well qualified to evaluate what is a good new charter applicant that would be likely to open a successful school,” Cotton said.

When it comes to the potential ideological debates that might crop up over curriculum or instructional material decisison, Cotton said she wants to build coalitions of Republicans and Democrats who can agree to teach things “that are practical and there is consensus around.” She added that because her background is not in curriculum, she would want to study research to find what kinds of curriculum impacts long-term outcomes for students and their health.

The third Republican candidate, Morrow, has been a controversial figure within the Travis County Republican party. He served as the chair of the Travis County GOP, but had to give up his role when he filed to run for president as a write-in candidate in the 2016 election. In January, the county group took the unusual step of voting to oppose Morrow’s candidacy for State Board of Education.

“Robert Morrow has a history of misogynist and vulgar language,” the resolution said. “Robert Morrow has made outrageous and slanderous allegations about President Trump, members of the Bush family, and Governor Rick Perry, among others.”

When contacted by the Rivard Report for comment, Morrow responded via a tweet, saying his top issue is the imprisonment of Donald Trump.

The Democrats running for the District 5 seat are Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a professor at Texas State University and repeat candidate for District 5, and Letti Bresnehan, former North East ISD trustee and director of continuing medical education at UT Health San Antonio.

Since Mercer first won election in 2006 with 71 percent of the vote, Bell-Metereau has opposed Mercer each time the position was up for election. The closest she came to beating him was in 2016, when she lost by roughly 4 percent.

Bell-Metereau told the Rivard Report that she believes the electorate has become disenchanted with leaders “putting politics before people” and that the 2020 election will be the time District 5 flips from Republican representation to Democratic.

Bell-Metereau said she is passionate about curriculum and hopes to win a seat on SBOE to bring good subject-area experts and real scholars to shape State standards for instruction, leaving behind what she described as an adherence to an old-fashioned view of history and science.

“I’ve seen such bad behavior in terms of curriculum and textbooks [on SBOE],” she said. “I want to step up and correct the problem before public education is completely destroyed.”

Bell-Metereau believes SBOE needs to “get a handle” on charter schools and apply a more rigorous process to approving new charter applications, she said. She has been involved in the San Marcos community, serving on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and bond commission.

Bresnehan serves on the board of Education Service Center Region 20, which supports the area school districts, and represented District 6 on the NEISD school board from 2008 to 2016.

She served as the board’s president during when a controversial proposal to rename Robert E. Lee High School surfaced. In late 2015, Bresnahan voted with four other trustees against renaming it.

The following year, after Bresnehan left the board, trustees voted to rename the school. Bresnehan described the process leading up to the vote as a lot of listening and learning, but said she felt at the time of her vote that constituents and board members did not want to change the name.

After two terms, Bresnehan decided not to run again, but felt called back to public office by Texas’ changing demographics and a desire to impact curriculum, responsibly manage the Permanent School Fund, which is overseen by SBOE, and more rigorously review charter applications.

Bresnehan said she would rely heavily on scholarly expertise when reviewing curriculum, stressing the important of fact-based instruction.

The former NEISD trustee said her board experience lends her candidacy credibility. “I know what it is like to work on a board and to work with other people to move the needle forward,” she said, adding that if elected, she would reach out to all SBOE members and leave ideology out of meetings.

Early voting for March primary runs Tuesday, Feb. 18, to Friday, Feb. 28. Election day is Tuesday, March 3.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.