AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The head of the Texas Board of Education acknowledged Monday that she once quizzed potential curriculum experts on how conservative they were and also divided up the 15-member board based on the strength of their Christian beliefs.
Barbara Cargill is a former biology teacher and ultra-conservative who disputes the theory of evolution and has in the past voted to require that its "weaknesses" be taught in state classrooms. She was appointed chairwoman of the board by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 when the Senate wasn't session, but her recent reappointment must now be approved by the chamber.
During an appearance before the Nominations Committee, Sen. Kirk Watson noted that Cargill asked in a 2009 email to an applicant seeking to become a member of a team helping to devise new social studies curriculum standards for classrooms "would you consider yourself a conservative when it comes to patriotism, the Constitution, the heritage of our forefathers?"
Cargill confirmed writing the email, saying, "I'm very, very conscious of the people who apply to be on these panels."
She went on to say that her constituents "made it very clear that those were very key issues." Cargill is a Republican representing The Woodlands.
Watson, an Austin Democrat, continued, "So, you think that to be an expert in the area of social studies you need to be a political conservative?"
"That was only one of the questions," said Cargill, who added that she sought curriculum experts "of all different viewpoints."
Watson likened that to a political litmus test. "They need to be what you would label 'a conservative?'" he asked.
"I don't ask that question anymore," Cargill responded. "I think that I've probably learned through the years, and the amount of time I've spend on the board now, I just look at resumes."
Watson then asked why, shortly after she was named chairwoman two years later, Cargill organized the board by how conservative its members were. He claimed she offended both Democrats and Republicans who "didn't want to be left out" of the Christian camp.
"Do you think dividing up the board between Christians and conservative Christians and others is a good way to run that board?" Watson asked.
"No it's not," Cargill said. She said she quickly corrected the problem by speaking with the members individually.
An intense fight over evolution and intelligent design theory in Texas science curriculum put a national spotlight on the State Board of Education in 2009, when it adopted standards that encourage public schools to scrutinize "all sides" of scientific theory.
The committee can refer Cargill's nomination to the full Senate. That body has not approved a board chairman since 2005, though, and four years ago it made headlines by rejecting Perry's reappointment of Don McLeroy, a conservative who advocated teaching arguments against evolution.
If Cargill is eventually approved, she will oversee the board's consideration of new science and social studies textbooks for public schools this year and next. Last month, she told the Senate Education Committee that she wants publishers to offer "another side" on evolution in new textbooks.
Cargill said Monday, however, that her comments were taken out of context and that she has always believed science should be taught in school and that religion should be limited to church or home.
Still, Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, indicated during the hearing that she favors debating evolution in the classroom: "We don't want to eliminate those things that you still have to go on faith that are out there."
"There are some things that we're not going to know until we go on to eternity," she said, "Obviously, I am a Christian and I do believe in God as the creator of life."