El Paso voters will decide the Democratic nominee for the open District 1 seat on the State Board of Education, one of the least visible — but most influential — races on the May 24 primary runoff ballot.

Neither of the two El Pasoans vying for the seat have raised enough funds for an extensive campaign. And despite the power the board wields in determining what the state’s 5 million public school students are taught, it’s relatively unknown among most voters.

But it’s a race worth paying attention to, particularly with the work ahead of the board, said Catherine Robert, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Voters should understand that members of the State Board of Education have a huge responsibility for governing Texas public schools. They serve as oversight in curriculum, instruction and the financial management of the Texas school system,” Robert said.

Melissa Ortega, 41, a University of Texas at El Paso women’s studies professor, almost secured the Democratic nomination in the March 1 primary, receiving 46% of the vote — just under the 50% plus one threshold needed to win outright.

Laura Márquez, 39, trailed with 35% of the vote. Márquez works at the Paso del Norte Children’s Development Center as the outreach coordinator for its Early Childhood Intervention Program.

The winner of the Democratic primary runoff will face Republican Michael “Travis” Stevens, an English teacher in San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, in the November general election.

Melissa Ortega

Board members serve four-year terms. The District 1 seat covers 30 counties, stretching from El Paso to Laredo to the San Antonio suburbs. Current District 1 member Georgina Pérez, a Democrat, did not seek reelection and has endorsed Ortega.

Ortega is campaigning on her decade of experience as a K-12 classroom teacher. She taught middle school science in the El Paso Independent School District, where she was also a district curriculum writer. She taught both middle school science and math in the Socorro Independent School District and was an instructional specialist.

“It’s scary to think that someone could be making decisions on policy and curriculum and textbook adoptions and resources when they’ve never been a teacher and been held accountable for the standards that the students are taught,” Ortega said in reference to her runoff opponent.

Laura Márquez

Márquez spent seven years as a special education paraprofessional, or teacher’s aide, in Illinois public schools, working with students with severe medical disabilities. That experience, she said, led to a career advocating for Texas children with disabilities and connecting them to resources and services.

“It all eventually connects to school readiness — we want the children we serve to be able to enter the K-12 system with their max potential and be able to build off of that,” Márquez said of her work at the Paso Del Norte Children’s Development Center.

She said she is campaigning to bring a community-centered, “more holistic view to our education system,” and to ensure that marginalized students, like those with disabilities, are represented in the board’s policy decisions.

The state’s two largest teacher unions are split over their endorsement in this race. The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers is backing Márquez, while the Texas State Teachers Association has thrown its support behind Ortega.

The 15-member State Board of Education sets curriculum standards for public school students, adopts textbooks, establishes graduation requirements, reviews rules for educator certifications and approves new charter school operators. It also oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund, a more than $40 billion endowment.

Members serve on one of three committees: instruction, school finance or school initiatives.

“My advice is as long as your candidate meets one of those three categories, you’ll be well represented,” said Robert, who has studied the State Board of Education.

Both Ortega and Márquez expressed an interest in serving on the instruction committee.

Márquez said she would like to apply a disability lens to the issues tackled by that committee, which include curriculum and graduation requirements. Ortega said she would bring firsthand experience in curriculum design and knowledge of the support teachers need to be successful.

The State Board of Education is currently reviewing social studies curriculum and is expected to adopt new standards this fall.

In the coming years, it will review curriculum standards for math and fine arts, adopt science and technology textbooks, and conduct a rule review of student attendance and hearing and appeals (the guidelines when a student is brought before a disciplinary committee). The board will also review the rules for new charter school operators.

“These are decisions and issues that impact the operation of schools, that impact student rights in schools,” Robert said. “There’s a lot of high stakes issues that will be coming up in the next couple of years, so it will be up to the voters to consider if their chosen representative offers the ability to comprehend these issues, (and) to engage in them responsibly.”

Early voting for the May 24 primary runoff election runs from May 16-20.

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.