Is Gov. Abbott pitting Texas parents against teachers? Education poised to be wedge issue

Linda D. Garrow

As families filed into the Lewisville charter school’s auditorium, they received a red-white-and-blue flyer: A parental bill of rights.

It was Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest dive into the education culture wars. At the bottom of the flyer was a note disclosing it was paid for by his re-election campaign.

The high-energy event provided a window into how education is poised to be a wedge issue — with increasingly divisive rhetoric over lessons that position families against teachers — that will likely play into the Republican gubernatorial primary and general election.

When Abbott told the crowd, “I am running for re-election to create a Parents Bill of Rights,” political observers heard a clear message.

“It points to the fact that Abbott is looking to go on the offense,” said Joshua Blank, research director for The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “What I think you see is that Abbott right now is exploiting what appears to be a present and growing concern amongst Republicans.”

Fights over curriculum and school library books, particularly as it relates to materials about race or sexuality, are the latest red-meat issues energizing conservative bases — not only in Texas but across the country.

Much of what is being targeted comes under what’s been transformed into an umbrella term: critical race theory. It’s an academic framework that probes the way policies and laws uphold systemic racism, but it has been co-opted by conservative pundits to describe a broad range of schools’ diversity and inclusion events.

Some conservatives are tapping into this angst, which was heightened by the pandemic, to argue a renewed push for “school choice” legislation. The Texas Public Policy Foundation on Tuesday, for example, announced that among top legislative priorities for the next session is removing “barriers that limit where parents can choose to send their kids to school.”

Politicians across the country have campaigned on parental rights. Among Abbott’s proposals, he wants to expand families’ access to courses with all lesson materials available online; prohibit schools from collecting any unnecessary personal data; and ensure any educators convicted of providing minors access to “pornography” lose their credentials and benefits.

But many of the issues the governor mentioned — from critical race theory to supposedly inappropriate library books — force families against educators, said Andrea Chevalier, an ATPE lobbyist.

“All these things are pitting educators against parents and creating this narrative that’s really harmful for public schools,” she said. “[It makes] it seem that parents need to take these bold actions.”

Additionally, critics note that much of what Abbott is proposing is already possible based on current law and school practices. Parents can ask teachers for curricular materials and school districts have grievance policies in place where families can challenge the appropriateness of lessons.

Education advocates quickly criticized Abbott’s proposal as political pandering. Under the guise of transparency and “parents rights,” they see there are ulterior motives.

Parents vs. educators

Educator groups immediately slammed Abbott’s speech, accusing him of playing politics and inflaming angst against teachers while they’re already grappling with the continued disruptions of the pandemic.

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said he pushed a “phony, politicized storyline … that ends up targeting and vilifying teachers and schools.”

Association of Texas Professional Educators director Shannon Holmes, meanwhile, said current education code already allows parents and educators to be partners in a child’s learning.

Chevalier cautioned voters against buying into Abbott’s narrative that parents must be on guard against overreaching educators.

“As a parent, as someone who was a teacher, I know that I completely respected parents,” Chevalier said. “I gave my parents a lot of power, and I wanted to listen to them and be partners with them.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, who served under President Ronald Reagan and joined Abbott’s recent announcement virtually, advised parents not to be “intimidated by what we call the cult of expertise.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett joins  Governor Greg Abbott as he addresses to the audience at Founders Academy of Lewisville on Thursday, January 20, 2022. Gov. Abbott visits North Texas to unveil his Parental Bill of Rights.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett joins Governor Greg Abbott as he addresses to the audience at Founders Academy of Lewisville on Thursday, January 20, 2022. Gov. Abbott visits North Texas to unveil his Parental Bill of Rights.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

“When it comes to the education of children, if you don’t understand what they’re talking about, you’re probably right and they’re probably wrong,” he said. “It’s not complicated, what to teach children.”

Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in a Monday statement that “parents have been losing their voices when it comes to their children.”

“When it comes to the classroom, Texas parents have every right to know what their children are being taught and have a say in their child’s education,” she said.

The recent debate over critical race theory and what’s being taught in schools has been framed as a conflict between “sort of cold intellectual bureaucrats and teachers who are all very liberal and don’t care what parents think” against those “who don’t want the radical curriculum, or sort of more grassroots” type, said Leslie Finger, an assistant professor in University of North Texas’ department of political science.

“I definitely think that’s sort of a deliberate framing that probably has political benefits,” she said.

Beto O’Rourke, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, released a video the same day as Abbott’s bill of rights event. He pledged to listen to the needs of professional educators.

A November poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that respondents were practically split down the middle on which political party they trusted more on education.

“Beto is making a bet on the fact that more people think that teachers are doing a good job and should be trusted and, if anything, are under-supported,” Blank said. “Abbott is making a bet that, ultimately, parents feel like, if not teachers, school districts, administrators, society is moving too quickly when it comes to changing the focus of their childrens’ education.”

Typically, education is seen as a Democratic issue — but that is changing, he said. The governor’s approach “puts the Republicans on the offense on an issue where they’re often on the defense.”

Nationwide, political campaigns are leaning in on creating a wedge.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin garnered momentum in his campaign by promising parents more power in their children’s education. Once elected, he quickly signed executive orders to “end the use of inherently divisive concepts,” including Critical Race Theory,” and rescind the statewide school mask mandate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who last year signed a parents’ bill of rights — has used similar rhetoric.

The context of what is happening in American education cannot be ignored, said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America.

“It’s very clear that the move to ‘curriculum transparency’ — while it appears neutral — is coming on the heels of an effort to quite explicitly, in many cases, ban or prohibit books, history lessons, conversations about diversity and race and racism in American history,” he said.

Foreshadowing policy change?

Many Republicans point to critical race theory or inappropriate books as reasons for greater school choice. Abbott’s parental bill of rights — announced at a public charter campus — did not explicitly mention the need for alternatives to traditional public schools.

But, education and political observers say they suspect Abbott is laying the groundwork for a renewed push for voucher-like initiatives in the 2023 legislative session. He did not discuss that during Thursday’s event.

The governor’s statement did not address this speculation.

Generally, vouchers funnel taxpayer money that would otherwise support public schools to individual students or families to help offset private school tuition. Other related school choice initiatives include tax credits or education saving accounts that set aside money for tuition or additional services. Historically, such proposals received support in the more conservative Texas Senate before dying in the House.

Related legislation has met tremendous House opposition from a coalition of urban Democrats and rural Republicans who tend to oppose the initiatives because students in their areas often don’t have alternatives to public schools.

“What we see looking to the 2023 session, in light of the 2021 session, is that many of the policies that even very recently seemed unpassable, even with Republican majorities, are now clearly passable,” Blank said.

Prominent Texas Republicans have recently signaled renewed interest in passing voucher-like programs in the coming session, set to start in January 2023.

At a Texas Public Policy Foundation event last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who oversees the Senate — said he was supportive of school choice and noted that Abbott also seemed for it.

During the 2017 session, Abbott pledged to sign any school choice legislation that crossed his desk.

Patrick warned that he didn’t want to see broad declarations of opposition from the House. “It won’t stop me,” a Texas Tribune reporter quoted him as saying.

At another event hosted by the right-wing foundation last week, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz identified school choice as the “most important domestic issue in the country.” Then this week, Cruz tweeted that school choice is the “civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, longtime opponents of voucher proposals are shoring up support before March primary elections that could reshape what the fight looks like in the House.

The Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, the founder and executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, said his group is promoting public education as the number one issue in primary and general races.

With many lawmaker retirements, open seats and redrawn districts, the composition of the House could change. But ultimately, Johnson thinks elections will result in a “wash” on the voucher issue.

“I don’t think that the pro-public education caucus is going to gain a lot of seats, nor do I think they are going to lose a lot of seats,” he said, noting that vouchers and school choice aren’t a priority for the state’s residents.

“These are national political platforms and agenda. They have nothing to do with Texans and the way Texans think.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.


https://www.dallasnews.com/news/education/2022/01/26/gov-abbotts-parental-bill-of-rights-signals-lasting-momentum-of-education-culture-war-issues/

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