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Texas GOP lawmaker launches investigation of books on race and sexuality used in school districts

The Texas State Capitol in Austin.
The Texas State Capitol in Austin. (Brian Snyder/Reuters/file)
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A Texas Republican lawmaker has launched an investigation into some of the state’s school districts’ libraries, demanding in a letter that educators say whether their schools own books named in a list of 850 titles, many of which cover issues of race and sexuality.

State Rep. Matt Krause, who is running for Texas attorney general, sent the inquiry to the Texas Education Agency and some school superintendents as part of his role as chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating. In the letter, Krause said that some school districts around the state have recently “removed books from libraries and/or classrooms after receiving objections from students, parents, and taxpayers.”

In his letter, first reported by the Texas Tribune, Krause requests that school districts say how many copies of the 850 books listed their schools own, as well as how much money the districts spent on copies of these titles.

Krause also wants superintendents to identify “any other books or content” in their districts that may “address or contain” topics of human sexuality, STDs, AIDS, HIV or material that might make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.”

Books that touch on these subjects violate the state’s H.B. 3979, a law that went into effect last month that limits how race-related subjects are taught in the state’s schools. It is known as the “critical race theory law.” In December, this law will be superseded by S.B. 3, which establishes that teachers can’t be forced to discuss current controversial topics in their classrooms.

Critical race theory is an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and law perpetuate systemic racism that has recently caused controversy in conservative circles. Public school teachers at elementary and high schools around the country say they are not teaching critical race theory, a concept largely confined to some colleges and law schools, yet conservative state lawmakers are pushing to ban a nonexistent issue from K-12 schools. Fox News and other right-leaning news organizations have been heavily covering the critical race theory dispute.

Sarah Spurrier, a Texas high school social studies teacher, said she doesn’t teach critical race theory in her classes, because that is a concept she first heard of this summer, when it became a conservative talking point.

“It’s not something that’s taught, event at the high school level,” she said. “I have a graduate degree with emphasis in social studies, and I didn’t even know what the theory was.”

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

Texas is not the only state in which books read in schools have roiled politics. In Virginia’s gubernatorial race, Republicans are focusing on books on race and sexuality to energize their political base.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s classic “Beloved” sparked debate after Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin criticized his opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), for vetoing a bill that would have required K-12 teachers to let parents know when students would study “sexually explicit content” in class. That bill was known as the “Beloved bill,” because, in 2013, Virginia mom Laura Murphy complained that her son, then a high school senior, had nightmares after reading the novel, which is about the life of a Civil War-era Black woman who kills her own baby rather than see the child enslaved.

Youngkin released a campaign ad this week featuring Murphy, who recounted the impact on her son, Blake, now a lawyer at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Fight over teaching ‘Beloved’ book in schools becomes hot topic in Virginia governor’s race

It is not clear how many Texas school districts received Krause’s request, but superintendents have until Nov. 12 to provide the information.

Attached to Krause’s letter was the 16-page list of books, which names titles that discuss race and racism in the United States, including “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, both best-selling texts. The list also names books that discuss matters of sex, gender and identity like “The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me” by Olivia Hinebaugh, and “Identity: A Story of Transitioning” by Corey Maison, and titles that touch on the gay rights movement like “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag” by Rob Sanders.

Krause’s list also includes books on race and sexuality tailored for younger children, like “When Aidan Became a Brother” by Kyle Lukoff. The letter offered no explanation as to why these books were chosen.

Krause’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Fort Worth Republican is a founding member of Texas’s House Freedom Caucus and last month announced a primary challenge against state Attorney General Ken Paxton. Krause has portrayed himself as a more conservative Republican than Paxton.

Jennifer Mitchell, the governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said Krause’s move shows that he’s trying to establish “his ability to run to the right of Paxton.”

“He’s jumping on the ‘critical race theory’ bandwagon,” Mitchell said.

Rep. Victoria Neave (D), vice chair of the state House’s Committee on General Investigating, told The Washington Post that the letter was not put up for a vote and that she only learned about it from a local school official. Her name is next to Krause’s at the top of the letterhead because the message was sent on behalf of the committee.

“This is just another attempt by Republicans here in Texas to censor the voices of people of color,” Neave said, calling Krause’s letter a “PR stunt” for his campaign. “What we see Republicans trying to do here in Texas is really whitewash our history. In a time where Latinos, when communities of color in Texas fueled our explosive population growth as reflected in the census data, we need to be giving these kids historically accurate information.”

Groups representing Texas educators also condemned the request. Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, called the investigation an “obvious attack on diversity.”

“Rep. Krause’s letter demanding that school superintendents provide him with lists of books dealing with certain subjects on their school bookshelves is disturbing and political overreach into the classroom,” Molina said. “Nothing in state law, not even in H.B. 3979 or S.B. 3, gives a legislator the authority to conduct this type of witch hunt.”

Shannon Holmes, the executive director of the ATPE, said teachers and school administrators are currently too overburdened by pandemic-related challenges, including understaffing and underfunding, to focus on Krause’s demands.

“Districts do not have the added bandwidth to meet this onerous and unnecessary request, and it will be student instruction that suffers,” Holmes said.

Spokespeople for the Spring Branch and Carroll Independent School Districts, which were directly named in Krause’s letter, said their districts are reviewing the request but could not comment further.

As Krause wrote, Texas school districts already have been dealing with demands that they remove certain materials from their bookshelves and classrooms. Earlier this month, the Katy Independent School District removed books by award-winning author Jerry Craft from its library and postponed a school visit by him because parents complained that his books promote critical race theory. Craft’s books are on Krause’s list. They tell the stories of two middle-schoolers who are among the few children of color in their grades at an elite private school. The books describes their struggles to fit in.

For Spurrier, the social studies teacher, Krause’s list is just another example of state politicians trying to override educational bodies like the Texas Education Agency to score political points.

“This is not the scene from ‘Footloose,’ where we’re all sitting outside the school throwing all the books into the burning bin,” she said. “This can’t be that.”