‘How did we get here?’: Local representatives, Critical Race Theory, and how Texas laws treat students

State & Regional

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – The deadline for certain school districts to turn in an audit of their books, a loud beginning to an inquiry into Texas public school content by Representative Matt Krause, is looming over many communities at the end of the week – including Amarillo. However, why the inquiry was launched in the first place, and what consequences might soon be in store for school districts around the state, can appear to some as though they’ve come out of the blue.

Is all this out of nowhere? Why public school content has taken a spotlight in the national conversation and political campaigns ranging from local school boards to governors is a complex web of money, media, and the framing of education as propaganda.

Here is a look at how the national conversation has impacted the High Plains, and what local representatives have had to do with bringing the books children read, and how their teachers treat them, to the forefront.

Part I || The last couple of weeks in Texas

After Representative and Attorney General Candidate Matt Krause issued a letter to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and multiple larger school districts in the state asking for statistics on the availability of a 16-page list of books on Oct. 25, Governor Greg Abbott told the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) that it had an obligation to monitor, and possibly remove, the content available in school libraries. Representative Jeff Cason also issued a statement calling on Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate books available in schools.

As of Nov. 4, official releases and statements from Paxton regarding the issues included only a letter arguing that efforts by the federal government to implement security and extra protection for school board members and staff violates the free speech rights of parents. Paxton’s office had not yet released a statement or response to Krause, Governor Abbott, or Cason.

On Nov. 8, Governor Abbott issued yet another letter regarding the content in school libraries, alleging a lack of oversight in Texas school districts into whether or not pornography and “other inappropriate content” was regularly made available to students.

Two days later, on Nov. 10, Abbott issued another letter that directed the TEA to investigate criminal activity in public schools involving the availability of “pornographic material that serves no educational purpose.” He also directed the agency to report any instance of pornography being provided to children for prosecution, despite the fact educators are already mandated by law to report harm to children, and the agency having multiple guidebooks about the ways it does. The Texas Association of School Boards also has such guidance.

Part II || The Texas Legislature in 2021

Critical Race Theory and the education and treatment of LGBTQ+ children in Texas were significant subjects within the 87th Legislative session, as well as the Special Sessions that followed.

Every High Plains Texas State Representative – John Smithee, Four Price, Ken King, and State Senator Kel Seliger – had sponsorship or authorship credits to bills regarding education and children’s healthcare including:

John Smithee (Texas House District 86)

  • House Bill 25 – Banning students in Texas from joining school sports based on gender identity instead of a biological sex noted on documents at or near the time of their birth.
    • Smithee sponsored other versions of this bill as well, including HB 10, HB 84, HB 100, and HB 187
  • Senate Bill 7 – Authorized a one-time payment of up to $2,400 for eligible Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) retirees.
  • House Bill 68 (Not passed) – This bill was referred to the House Committee of Public Health. This would have legally altered the definition of child abuse to include gender-affirming physical and mental healthcare.
  • House Bill 133 (Not passed) – A followup of sorts to House Bill 68, this was sponsored by Smithee, Price, and King alongside other representatives. HB 133 did not become law but was introduced during the session, and would have banned physicians from giving gender-affirming healthcare under a penalty of possible license loss. Liability coverage would also not protect a healthcare provider who supplied gender-affirming care to children.

When asked about House Bills 25, 68, and 133, Rep. Smithee claimed that his constituents overwhelmingly supported them.

“HB 25 provides fairness for our female athletes,” said Smithee, “HB 68 and HB 133 both would have ensured that these major medical decisions are being made by patients only once they have become adults.”

The U.S. Department of Education (DoEd) said in June 2021 that it considers that Title IX specifically also protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination on bases such as sexual orientation and gender identity, though specifics about how HB 25 will be enforced or how it will interact with potential accusations of violating Title IX has remained unclear.

Regarding healthcare for transgender children, puberty blockers such as those that would have been banned in HB 133 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as deemed safe and temporary by experts at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and The Endocrine Society and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

On the subject of the inquiry into Texas school content spearheaded by Rep. Krause, MyHighPlains.com asked Smithee, Price, King, and Seliger about their opinions on the inquiry as well as the schools chosen for the audit – including whether they agreed with Amarillo ISD being among the school districts told to complete the audit, while Canyon ISD was not. As of Nov. 10, Smithee was the only representative to reply.

“I strongly support transparency for parents regarding the content of books in their children’s schools,” said Smithee, the only one among the local representatives to offer comment, “I do not serve on the General Investigating Committee conducting the investigation, therefore I am not privy to how the committee determined which school districts to include in their review.”

Four Price (Texas House District 87)

  • House Bill 25 – Price specifically sponsored HB 10 and HB 84, both versions of HB 25 alongside Smithee.
  • House Bill 133 – Sponsored alongside the other local representatives Smithee and King.
  • House Bill 3489 – Discussed guidelines for how public schools should use digital devices, and policy for school districts and open-enrollment charter schools about how those devices should be integrated into day-to-day use.
  • Senate Bill 7 – Alongside Smithee.
  • Senate Bill 15 (Child Counseling, filed) – This bill was filed regarding gender-affirming therapy and counseling for children. Health providers would not be allowed to provide gender-affirming therapy and counseling. At the same time, the government would not be allowed to restrict counseling “for the purpose of affirming the gender of the child that is consistent with the child’s biological sex,” instead of gender identity.
  • Senate Bill 15 (Off-campus Learning, passed) – Details how school districts or open-enrollment charter schools who were given an overall rating of “C” or higher for the previous school year can offer a local remote learning program with virtual courses outside the state network.

Ken King (Texas House District 88)

  • House Bill 25 – Alongside Smithee, King sponsored HB 25 and HB 10.
  • House Bill 133 (Not passed) – Also registered under HB 166, King sponsored the failed bill with Price and Smithee.
  • House Bill 1525 – Amended the Texas Education Code regarding public school finance. When receiving a donation from a parent-teacher organization or association recognized by the district intended to fund staff positions, the donation must be used for their intended purpose and within its intended time.
  • House Bill 3643 – Created the Texas Commission on Virtual Education.
  • Senate Bill 15 (Off-campus Learning, passed) – King sponsored the passed SB 15 along with Price.
  • Senate Bill 1063 – Requires that high school students are given a course in personal financial literacy and economics.
  • Senate Bill 1697 – Regarding how parents and guardians are able to decide a student should repeat a course or grade.

Kel Seliger (Texas Senate District 31)

  • House Bill 1603 – Discusses when special accreditation investigations should be conducted on a school district.
  • Senate Bill 7 – Alongside Smithee and Price. Authorized a one-time payment of up to $2,400 for eligible Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) retirees.
  • Senate Bill 29 (Not passed) – Intended to be added to HB 25, this would have added an amendment that required the UIL to run and publish a study on the impacts of which teams upon which LGBTQ+ students are allowed to play.

Other notes on the Texas Legislature

  • House Bill 3979 – was voted for by Seliger, and went into effect on Sept. 1. Commonly referred to as the “Critical Race Theory Bill”, HB 3979 set down expectations of content for students’ education in civics. The bill expressly bans teachers from teaching material such as the 1619 Project, published through The New York Times Magazine around the time of the 400th anniversary of what historians believe is when the first enslaved African people arrived in Virginia. The project aimed to analyze US history through the context of slavery and its consequences, as well as the contributions of black Americans.
    • Critical Race Theory (CRT), is a theoretical framework and interprative mode that examines race and racism across dominant cultural modes and expression. Scholars that use this theoretical framework do so to examine and understand the social and cultural forces that shape how people day-to-day perceive, experience, and respond to racism. It is not a set group of curriculum or even a noun, according to scholars, but a set of practices used to look at the historical context of laws and systems and their impacts on people.
      • CRT is used in fields such as philosophy, history, sociology, and law; in recent decades it has also been used by scholars to discuss intersectionality, such as how race interacts with other parts of a person’s identity such as gender and class. For instance, scholars might use this framework in analyzing how a black American woman may have dealt with racism throughout her life, and the different and similar ways a black American transgender woman may have dealt with racism throughout her life.
      • Opponents to the bill argue that it limits conversation about race and racism in American society and will force teachers to equivocate on controversial topics that will result in less educated students. However, those in support of the bill argue that it is working to combat personal biases from bleeding into public education – expressing concerns that teachers have been unfairly blaming white people for historical wrongs and distorting the founding fathers’ accomplishments.
  • House Bill 3610 and tax rates – Seliger was also among the candidates who voted for House Bill 3610, which made charter schools exempt from property taxes on leased school buildings.
  • Aside from Rep. Smithee, no other local representative listed has responded to MyHighPlains.com reaching out for comment.

Part III || Why Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ+ kids?

In September 2020, as noted by the American Bar Association, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that removed diversity and inclusion training from federal contracts that were interpreted as containing “Divisive Concepts,” “Race or Sex Stereotyping,” and “Race or Sex Scapegoating.” Among the content considered “divisive” is Critical Race Theory. At least 16 states have recently introduced or passed bills that would limit teaching certain ideas commonly linked to the theory.

Further, many school board races leading up to November 2021 received a lot of focus nationwide, and many other campaigns focused on education as a rallying issue for supporters. Between conflicts regarding COVID-19 protocols in schools, transgender athletes, and Critical Race Theory, education once again has become an intense political battleground. According to Ballotpedia, over 115 school districts across the country took those issues into focus during their November elections; the most commonly mentioned was “race in education/critical race theory” among the three main topics. Since the Amarillo ISD school board races in May 2021, these topics have taken the spotlight when it comes to how communities have been casually referencing their schools.

On a more broad level, governors’ races such as the November election in Virginia saw those same education topics as a fixture in the winner Glenn Youngkin’s campaign. Because smaller races such as school board elections can inform bigger politicians of what topics are popular in current conversations, and because many will take races such as Virginia’s as an omen or a playbook for mid-term and governor elections in 2022, these topics are expected to continue to bring in funding and keep the public talking.

Regarding funding, Political Action Committees (PACs) such as the 1776 Project PAC entered the scene in 2021 and funded school board candidates across the country that supported pushes to ban CRT from classrooms. Other PACs have emerged in 2021 focusing on CRT, COVID-19 measures in schools, and transgender student-athletes as well to fund candidates in local and broader statewide elections. Some of these newer entities have contributed to funding local representatives, as well.

Part IV || Money, local schools, and local representatives

During their tenures on the High Plains, every current local state representative for the Amarillo area received some of their top funding from PACs focused on education policy and property insurance.

John Smithee received over $264,450 in contributions from insurance and real estate associations and over $27,475 from education-based policy associations.

Four Price received over $286,556 in contributions from insurance and real estate associations and over $61,500 in contributions from education-based policy associations.

Ken King received over $370,203 in contributions from insurance and real estate associations and over $88,000 in contributions from education-based policy associations.

Kel Seliger received over $774,475 in contributions from insurance and real estate associations and over $220,483 in contributions from education-based policy associations.

While no ‘sector’ in society exists in a bubble, education policy and real estate tend to directly impact demographical information in communities and property values, as well as school funding.

In Texas, school districts get money mostly through two paths: local property taxes, and state funding. The exception here is charter schools, which are managed and viewed by state law as businesses, but are publicly funded and cannot levy taxes. (In the past few months, as mentioned, charter schools also became exempt from paying taxes on buildings they lease.)

As noted by Aliyya Swaby with the Texas Tribune in a 2019 overview of Texas school funding, “To cover their base budgets, districts first use local property tax revenue, and the state pays the balance. And as local property values have grown, the state’s share of public education has shrunk.” In 2019, local property owners footed about 64 percent of the bill, according to the Texas Comptroller.

Districts that enroll high amounts of students that are seen by the state as being more expensive to educate (such as low-income students and those with disabilities) also receive additional funding.

Regarding how much each community pays for their schools through taxes, the state regulates how much schools can increase a tax rate before having to ask permission from voters. For instance, Amarillo ISD lowered its tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year after Texas House Bill 3 ‘compressed’ those rates. AISD Deputy Superintendent Pati Buchenau said the compression was meant to prevent significant tax increases in expanding communities such as Austin, which has seen “double-digit” growth in recent years. Amarillo itself saw a broad notable increase in property values since 2020, which may have risked a tax rate increase as well without the measure in the bill.

This means that instead of using funding from local tax contributions for basic operations and special programs, Amarillo ISD is depending on the state to provide the majority of the funding it needs to run. However, the amount of funding that the state guarantees for each student has only increased by around 1.5% in the last year – nearly three times less than the national ADA spending increase, and the COVID-19 pandemic only made school districts across the state more strapped for cash.

In the wake of COVID-19, the federal government gave $2.2 billion to the state of Texas to help public education. Another $18 billion in available federal pandemic relief funds was sent Texas’ way – but only $11.2 billion was released by the state to public schools, and only in April after being held up for months, which led many districts to worry further about being unable to find staff and allocate the resources in time for the most recent school year.

In fact, concerns about releasing the rest of that money and efforts to use it to fund schools before the end of the 2021 legislative session in May led to events such as Raise Your Hand Texas putting up a six-foot-tall, three-legged stool at South Georgia Elementary in order to rally support for releasing the aid.

Unfortunately, despite the showmanship, there was no clear resolution from the Texas Legislature on the release and use of that funding to help school recovery this year, despite the extra sessions called throughout the summer that resulted in bills like HB 25 and HB 3979.

Part V || “Okay, that’s a lot of information at once.”

It is.

However, it is important to understand some of the contexts around how Texas public schools are funded and what happened in the state capitol this year in order to discuss why state representatives focused on the bills that they did, and why it might be that gestures such as Krause’s school library audit are being promoted as loudly as they are.

As recently as Nov. 10, Dumas Independent School District announced it would have to cancel its upcoming Friday classes because of a lack of staffing – particularly bus drivers and substitutes. Amarillo and Canyon ISD have continued to pursue a dogged effort to hire substitute teachers.

Texas state representatives, including those responsible for the High Plains, have worked in the last year to ensure that profitable and dubiously-regulated charter schools do not pay into their communities. They have not, in the meantime, worked to adjust state funding for public education to match community needs and inflation nor distributed the full amount of relief funding granted by the federal government meant to help public education recover from a catastrophic two years.

Meanwhile, they have accepted money from real estate and insurance entities that benefit from high property value and low tax rates, as well as education PACs that appear to be in support of charter schools or with a focus on ideological “culture war” issues such as the discussions on Critical Race Theory and school content, COVID-19 guidelines, and LGBTQ+ students.

The elections coming up in 2022 are set to bring every Texas state office, from the Governor and Attorney General down to each one of the High Plains’ state House and Senate seats, to the ballot box. Taking cues from the rest of the Republican party across the country, Texas leaders appear to be focusing intently on those “culture war” issues that proved to be profitable buzzword topics for conservative candidates in the recent elections. Even though State Senator Kel Seliger is not seeking re-election, candidates for his replacement such as Stormy Bradley have already based campaigns on those topics as well.

This focus is bringing attention to those officials’ efforts regarding those buzzword topics has taken attention away from the ways leaders like the High Plains local representatives have not made efforts regarding critical day-to-day issues like funding and resources that enable public schools to keep their doors open to their communities at all.

Part VI | What now?

What began as an effort to answer basic questions about the logistics of looking into students’ birth certificates has snowballed into this ongoing series of articles regarding education at a local and state level. While researching these articles, MyHighPlains.com has also collected a number of resources for students, families, educators, and others to use related to education.

  • The Amarillo Public Library is accessible in person, and its and digital resources are available with a student ID or a free library card. Services focused on jobs, businesses, English as a second language, community service, and education are also available alongside the countless pieces of literature and media that can be found in its catalogue
  • The Amarillo League of Women Voters has data and resources available from basic information on local elections, voting rights, and programs regarding membership and other ways for a person to be involved in their community.
  • The Sesame Workshop (yes, from Sesame Street) has a database of information and resources on initiatives aimed at topics such as financial empowerment, health and hygiene, caring for others, supporting military families, handling trauma, gender equity, and racial justice. These have been designed with family participation and educators in mind.
  • The US Department of Education provides resources on federal education law, grant opportunities, student resources, and education-related data and research.

If you would like to follow the recent education coverage from MyHighPlains.com in order:

  • Part I | HB 25 and Amarillo area school sports, the books students read, and unanswered questions
  • Part II | Amarillo-area schools told to report books on race, sexuality for school content investigation
  • Part III | Is my kid getting porn from their public school library?
  • Part IV | Dumas ISD cancels Friday classes, says it ‘cannot effectively conduct the business of school’
  • Part V | Gov. Abbott sends another letter to TEA, doubles down on claims of porn in public schools

This story is developing. Check with MyHighPlains.com for updates.

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