Amid high profile political discussions about how Texas students learn about race, gender and sexuality, three El Paso educators are vying for a seat on the State Board of Education, which sets and reviews curriculum standards and approves textbooks for public schools.

Laura Márquez, Melissa Ortega and Omar Yanar are competing to be the Democratic candidate on the November ballot for the District 1 seat, which covers 30 counties stretching from El Paso to the San Antonio suburbs down to Laredo. Close to 45% of El Paso is in District 1. Two Republicans are seeking that party’s primary nomination.

The seat is currently held by Democrat Georgina Pérez, who is stepping down in December after two terms.

Melissa Ortega

The 15-member state board has a history of politicizing the teaching of sex education and evolution, and just started a review of social studies curriculum — the first after Republican state lawmakers passed legislation last year limiting how teachers discuss race and racism. The panel has recently drawn criticism for appointing a former professor who has promoted falsehoods about the 2020 election results as a curriculum content advisor.

Ortega, 40, a former middle school science teacher who now teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, said her background in science education has prepared her for the board’s forthcoming review of science curriculum. She taught for seven years in the El Paso and Socorro independent school districts and spent three years as an assistant director of staff development in EPISD. Her doctorate focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

“Having somebody in there who really understands the curriculum at the deepest level … would really help the colleagues that I’d be working with at the state level,” Ortega said. “I’d be able to really advocate for the needs of our teachers, our students and our community regarding STEM education.”

Pérez has endorsed Ortega to succeed her.

Márquez, 39, is backed by another heavyweight in El Paso’s education world: state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, a vocal advocate for public schools. The Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers has also endorsed Márquez.

Laura Márquez

Márquez spent seven years as a special education paraprofessional in an Illinois school district before earning a master’s degree in social work from UTEP. She is currently a developmental disabilities policy fellow at the Paso Del Norte Children’s Development Center, connecting children with disabilities to local resources.

“I would love for more kids to learn about disability,” Márquez said. “Curriculum should be inclusive and representative of all groups — of race, ethnicity and ability.”

Márquez said she would approach state education policy discussions through a disability lens, saying, “When we’re working out a policy to make it best for the most marginalized community, then we can only make it better for all of the community.”

Yanar, 42, opened the El Paso Leadership Academy in 2014, and has since grown the public charter school to two campuses serving nearly 300 students in sixth to ninth grade. Before that, he taught social studies in the Round Rock Independent School District outside Austin for five years and in EPISD for a year.

He’s running for the open State Board of Education seat because “the constituency is demanding some radical changes and innovations in how we approach education as a whole,” he said. The pandemic has highlighted long-standing technological needs at schools, he said.

Specifically, Yanar would like to see more curricular materials digitized so students can log in and complete the work at their own pace, allowing more individualized instruction for students who need additional support.

Omar Yanar

The State Board of Education is also tasked with approving or vetoing new charter school applications, a divisive topic among the Democratic contenders.

Márquez and Ortega said they would continue Pérez’s tradition of rigorously scrutinizing applicants. Both candidates oppose charter schools because of their reduced level of state oversight compared to traditional public school districts. Of particular concern to Márquez is that charters, on average, serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools.

Yanar, however, said charter schools play an important role in the public education system. He views them not as a substitute or competitor to traditional public schools, but as a complement, describing them as “laboratories of innovation” that can help solve challenges in public education.

If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the March 1 primary, the top two vote-getters will move on to a May 24 runoff.

Yanar raised $2,500 for his campaign and Márquez brought in $2,780, according to Jan. 18 and Jan. 31 campaign finance reports. Ortega raised $300 on her Jan. 18 report; she did not submit the Jan. 31 report covering the Jan. 1-Jan. 20 fundraising period.

Republican candidate aims to keep CRT out of classrooms

Two San Antonio-area educators are running in the Republican primary for District 1: Michael “Travis” Stevens, a language arts teacher and instructional coach in the Northside Independent School District and speech language pathologist Lani Popp.

Stevens, 40, has been a teacher for 11 years and said he was motivated to run after learning how few educators serve on the state board.

Michael Stevens

“We need more educators that are on the board that know exactly how these policies are affecting students and teachers in the classroom,” he said.

His campaign website states he “will fight to keep sexually explicit books out of our school libraries and curriculum that is not based on factual evidence, such as CRT (critical race theory), out of our classrooms.”

District leaders and teachers overwhelmingly say CRT — a graduate level framework for examining systemic racism — is not taught in public schools. Asked about these positions, Stevens said politics have no place in education.

“We need to understand the horrific things that happened (in Texas and U.S. history) because of people’s ignorance and prejudice,” he said. “That needs to be taught, but from a factual, evidence standpoint, not politicized, not with some sort of hidden agenda to villainize any group of people.”

Books shouldn’t be pulled from libraries without first undergoing a review, he said, adding that he favors a rating system for books to determine age appropriateness.

Popp, who lost to Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau in the November 2020 general election for the District 5 seat, now lives in District 1 because of redrawn maps from 2021 state redistricting. She did not respond to interview requests sent to her campaign email and website.

Stevens has raised $341 for his campaign, according to his campaign finance reports. Popp reported raising no money for her campaign.

Cover photo: Texas textbooks. (Photo illustration by Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with...