Conservatives’ school board victories could give Texas GOP momentum for November elections, 2023 legislative session

By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Voters across Texas on Saturday elected a bevy of conservative Texas school board candidates, emboldening state Republicans who are increasingly getting involved in nonpartisan local elections.

GOP leaders portray the victories as parents rejecting what they call left-wing ideologies — and getting behind the notions that critical race theory is being taught in schools and that children are given access to overly sexualized books. And school board campaign vows to rid schools of critical race theory come after the Texas Legislature last year passed a law limiting how race, the history of slavery and current events are taught in schools. It was dubbed the “critical race theory” bill, even though the legislation never mentioned the term.

“Republicans dominated school board races across Texas because parents are fed up with left-wing garbage,” said Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi, who declined to be interviewed for this story but provided a statement. “The Republican Party of Texas will continue to support education over indoctrination and plans to expand our efforts in local and nonpartisan races.”

But more GOP involvement in local politics may not be the only effect of Saturday’s elections. Experts believe campaigning on culture wars is a winning strategy for the GOP. And, they say, it will embolden Republicans to continue passing laws based on political wedge issues during next year’s legislative session.

“The state party wants to continue to ride this wave,” said Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Teachers and public education experts have repeatedly pointed out that critical race theory — a university-level concept that examines how racism shapes laws and policies — is not taught in K-12 public schools. And many of the books targeted for removal from school libraries in recent months tell the stories of LGBTQ characters and people of color.

But Texas Republicans are following a national playbook of feeding off conservative parents' fears that “critical race theory” is being taught in public schools and children are being exposed to obscene sexual content.

Conservative school board candidates saw victories across the state, but most notably, they won big in Tarrant County, which has been moving away from its perch as one of America’s reddest urban counties. The county had 10 candidates win their races with the backing of the conservative Patriot Mobile Action PAC, which poured half a million dollars into the races.

In the Lake Travis Independent School District, northwest of Austin, all three conservative candidates backed by the Lake Travis Families PAC secured seats on the school board. And in Katy, a Houston suburb, a candidate promising to “remove graphic, vulgar books” and “resist efforts to sexualize our children at an early age” handily defeated his opponents.

The Texas GOP paraded the school board win as a victory for the party. The state party says it is fighting hard to elect conservative candidates from governor all the way to the school board.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a third term in November, has said that the “power of parents will continue to expand.” He is campaigning on his support for a so-called “parental bill of rights,” even though parents already have such rights outlined in the state’s education code.

Days after the recent school board races, Abbott voiced his support for a long-sought goal that has eluded conservatives in Texas: giving parents the option to send their kids to private school “with state funding following the student.”

Critics of so-called school vouchers say they hurt public schools because they divert state funding away from public school districts.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick echoed Abbott’s support for such vouchers.

“Texas has over 5 million students in our public school system. That’s more students than some states have people,” Patrick said in a press release this week. “We can support school choice and, at the same time, create the best public education system in America. These issues are not in conflict with each other.”

Patrick also wants the Texas Legislature next year to pass a law that mirrors Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which is a conservative push to limit classroom discussions about LGBTQ people. Both Abbott and Patrick made parental rights a priority as they both seek reelection in November.

Patrick did not immediately respond to an interview request. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, a leading figure in recent conservative policy, did not respond to an interview request. State Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, who co-authored the state’s first critical race theory law, did not immediately respond to an interview request.

State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who serves on the House Public Education Committee, said lawmakers next year need to focus on the real issues the public education system is facing, such as learning loss due to COVID-19, the teacher shortage and mental health challenges, he said.

“The issues that schools have been facing over the past two years have nothing to do with what the [Republican] party is focused on,” Bernal said. “I give them credit for manufacturing these issues to distract from the real ones and the big ones that are facing us.”

Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the Republican party is showing that it is more interested in ideological policy rather than materially helping the public school systems.

Robison suspects that the conservative candidates who won these school board races will lobby in Austin for ideological issues such as parental rights and school vouchers.

“The Legislature needs to reset its focus from this ideology and reset it on really funding public education,” he said.

Disclosure: Texas State Teachers Association and University of Texas - Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/11/texas-school-board-elections/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

How a Christian cellphone company with piles of cash is making North Texas a political battleground

KELLER — As Tarrant County continues moving away from its perch as one of America’s reddest urban counties and public schools increasingly serve as battlefields for culture wars, school board races in four North Texas districts have quickly transformed from traditionally low-profile contests into high-stakes political conflicts.

The races include the kind of heated debates — about how America’s history of racism should be taught and what books kids should be able access on campuses — that have recently become typical in Texas and across the country. But the four Tarrant County districts’ school board races, which voters will decide Saturday, also feature something rare for Texas’ nonpartisan and typically sleepy school board races: hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions and campaign spending.

That’s largely driven by Christian cellphone company Patriot Mobile, which has put $500,000 into a political action committee supporting conservative candidates in the Carroll, Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller and Mansfield school districts. What’s more, Patriot Mobile Action is led by a seasoned local political campaign expert and has contracted with top conservative political consulting firms that usually focus on statewide races and presidential campaigns.

The Grapevine-based company and its political arm aren’t shy about their goals and plan to expand such activism beyond Tarrant County.

“Patriot Mobile Action is a new entity created to put Christian conservative values into action,” said a statement from Patriot Mobile’s vice president of government and public affairs, Leigh Wambsganss, who also runs the PAC. “We will take action in supporting organizations and candidates that exemplify these values.”

[As culture wars envelop schools, North Texas sees a superintendent exodus]

Conservative parents in Tarrant County who are backing the same candidates as Patriot Mobile Action believe the races are a chance to save their kids from a harmful liberal indoctrination. They’ve packed school board meetings to insist that books about LGBTQ people have made pornography rife within schools and that lessons about American history and current events are subversively promoting so-called critical race theory in a way that intends to make white children feel guilty about the country’s history of racism.

Meanwhile, parents opposed to the conservative candidates are fighting an uphill battle as Saturday’s elections approach. They argue that critical race theory, a graduate school-level legal concept, isn’t being taught in schools and distracts from more pressing needs like dealing with pandemic learning loss and the state teacher shortage.

Students accept awards in the arts and academics at a Keller ISD school board meeting in Keller on April 25, 2022. School board meetings across the state have seen high attendance now that they have become political battlegrounds for a variety of social issues.

Students accept awards in arts and academics at a Keller ISD school board meeting. School board meetings across the state have seen high attendance, becoming political battlegrounds for a variety of social issues. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

The parents fighting to make “school board meetings boring again” are also afraid that local school board candidates, if elected, will serve the interests of PACs and big-money donors.

“We’re not interested in changing anybody’s minds,” said Laney Hawes, whose four children attend Keller Independent School District. “We’re interested in reaching the voters who don’t realize what’s at stake.”

Texas has more than 1,200 school districts, which are largely independently run by their elected boards. About 47 districts across the state have school board elections Saturday, according to Ballotpedia.

The North Texas school board races are microcosms of larger fights playing out statewide. Since at least last year, state officials and lawmakers have stoked fears about the “indoctrination” of children in classrooms. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made parental rights a priority as they both seek reelection in November. Patrick has also vowed to push for a “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Texas, mirroring Florida’s conservative push to limit classroom discussions about LGBTQ people.

This comes after the Texas Legislature passed a law last year limiting how race, slavery and current events are taught in schools. They dubbed it the “critical race theory” bill, even though the legislation never mentioned the term. Critical race theory is a university-level concept that examines how racism shapes laws and policies. Public education experts, along with school administrators and teachers, say the theory is not taught in public schools.

But to some parents, like Keller ISD mom Carly Alacahan, vilifying equity and inclusion efforts and criticizing attempts to teach history from multiple perspectives is overly politicizing public schools.

“I don’t ever want my kids to hear the school board meetings because it definitely feels like I’m a criminal — like we’re criminals just for getting where we are,” said Alacahan, who is Latina. “We don’t hate white people. We don’t hate anybody. We just want to be able to tell the story so that we can understand each other.”

Still, much of the money pouring into Tarrant County school board races stems from fears that schools are teaching young white children lessons that make them feel discomfort about their own race.

“As a parent, I will say that critical race theory in and of itself is racist, and I’m not a racist, neither is my son or my family,” said Patriot Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Scott Coburn, who is white. “My son, who has been in Southlake schools his entire life, has never seen anything racist at all, systemically or otherwise, within the schools.”

Visitors attend a Keller ISD school board meeting in Keller on April 25, 2022.

Visitors attended a Keller ISD school board meeting last month. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

A shifting county

Tarrant County has long been a bastion of American conservatism. When the Tea Party movement swept American politics in the early years of the Obama administration, a northeast Tarrant chapter was formed that included members from suburbs like Collevyille, Grapevine, Keller and Southlake. It quickly became a powerhouse in Texas politics and played an outsized role in shaping the state GOP as it helped elect local conservatives to the Texas Legislature.

In the 2016 presidential election, Texas’ larger counties moved deeper into the Democratic column. But Tarrant emerged as America’s most conservative large urban county. Republican Donald Trump won there with an 8.6-point margin, his largest victory among the country’s 20 largest counties.

But two years later, Democrat Beto O’Rourke narrowly beat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Tarrant. In the 2020 presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden narrowly beat Trump by 0.2 percentage points.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the conservatives pouring money into local school board races are doing so as a counteroffensive to the inroads progressives have made in areas that were once Republican strongholds. “These are counties that are no longer rock-solid conservative and in the way that we would have characterized them maybe 10 years ago,” Jones said.

Tarrant includes Southlake, an affluent suburb that drew national attention after a 2018 video of white high school students chanting a racist slur prompted dialogues on the treatment of Black students at Carroll ISD, the area’s public school system.

After the video went viral, the district introduced what it called a Cultural Competence Action Plan to address racial discrimination. Then came the backlash.

Through the Southlake Families PAC, Carroll ISD’s conservative parents worked successfully to stop a plan they deemed would “ingrain woke racial politics in the schools.” Last year, with support from the Southlake Families PAC, the two school board candidates running in steadfast opposition to the district’s diversity plan won seats on the board.

Wambsganss, who is now leading Patriot Mobile Action, helped start the Southlake PAC in 2011, a Southlake document obtained by The Texas Tribune shows.

“She runs our PAC and she’s got 30-plus years in political consultant experience and managing money in campaigns,” Coburn said of Wambsganss. “She’s really well versed in all of this. She’s using all of the same tactics that you would see like a political consultant company that would come in and help somebody organize and manage a campaign.”

And while the amount of money Patriot Mobile Action is spending on local school board races is a sharp departure from convention, Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said it’s not unexpected.

“It doesn’t surprise me because they’re right next door to Southlake,” Deen said. “They had a front-row seat.”

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, sits on the House Public Education Committee and co-sponsored the GOP’s so-called critical race theory bill last year. Before he was a lawmaker, he served on the Humble ISD school board. Yet even he is in disbelief that the North Texas school board races are pulling in dollar figures usually seen in statewide campaigns.

“It’s perplexing to some degree that there is a lot of outside interest coming,” Huberty said. “I ran for school board because my kids were going to public school, and I wanted to try to make a difference [in] their potential education. It wasn’t because I had a political philosophy.”

A patriot’s phone plan

Grapevine-based Patriot Mobile bills itself as “America’s only Christian conservative wireless service provider.” The money it donates to conservative causes and organizations comes from customers’ phone bills. Patriot Mobile has over 60,000 subscribers nationwide, a number that is expected to almost double by the end of the year, said Coburn, its chief marketing officer whose son is a Carroll student in Southlake.

Ahead of Saturday’s election, Patriot Mobile Action PAC has raised over half a million dollars, coming almost entirely from its phone company, and had about $125,000 cash on hand as of the end of April.

Since the end of March, the PAC has spent about $390,000 on the four Tarrant County school districts’ 11 conservative candidates. That includes nearly $200,000 on direct mailers, about $145,000 on canvassing costs and $30,000 on digital ads, according to campaign filings.

Patriot Mobile Action has spent $38,500 in advertising and canvassing for each candidate from Mansfield ISD, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD and Keller ISD. In Mansfield, the PAC has backed candidates Craig Tipping, Bianca Benavides Anderson, Keziah Valdes Farrar and Courtney Lackey Wilson. In Grapevine-Collevyille, it is supporting Tammy Nakamura and Kathy Florence-Spradley. In the Keller races, Patriot Mobile Action is backing Micah Young, Joni Shaw Smith and Sandi Walker.

The PAC has spent $20,875 on the two Carroll school district candidates it’s backing: Andrew Yeager and Alex Sexton.

The 11 candidates Patriot Mobile Action is backing either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

The company’s political arm was devised after Patriot Mobile founders Chris Wilson and Glenn Story noticed a San Francisco-based phone carrier called Credo Mobile. It promised customers that 1% of their phone bills would go to liberal causes and candidates. In 2012, Credo Mobile created its own political action committee and raised almost $2.5 million to oppose Tea Party Republicans in Congress. According to media reports, one of the targeted conservatives was Allen West, who at the time was a Florida congressperson. He recently led the Republican Party of Texas and unsuccessfully challenged Abbott in the March Republican primary.

“Our founders saw that the Credo on the left was having a major influence on political movements and getting candidates elected just by getting people to sign up for their cellphone service,” Coburn said. “And they said, well, we don’t have anybody on our side that’s doing that.”

According to Coburn, Patriot Mobile allows its customers to receive phone service without directly supporting “Big Mobile,” which he says donates to left-leaning organizations through corporate responsibility programs. But Patriot Mobile pays T-Mobile a wholesale rate to use its phone towers and infrastructure and then repackages the service by handling subscribers’ customer service and billing needs.

Patriot Mobile has supported organizations like the National Rifle Association and conservative youth movement Turning Point USA. The phone carrier will donate $1.5 million to conservative causes in 2022 and expects that number to double next year, Coburn said.

Coburn said the launch of the Patriot Mobile Action PAC allows the phone company to “get involved in local elections” with the goal of eventually expanding into statewide races.

“We are inserting ourselves into the issues because that’s what our customers want,” Coburn said.

In the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of door hangers and direct mailers in the North Texas races, Patriot Mobile Action warns parents of the presence of “critical race theory” in their school districts and endorses the candidates who are “saving America.”

“Keller ISD exposed our kids to explicit, ‘Woke’ Books,” one mailer reads. “The far-left agenda has infected KISD and it’s hurting our kids. It’s time for a new school board.”

Visitors applaud after a public comment concludes at a Keller ISD school board meeting in Keller on April 25, 2022.

Visitors applaud after a public comment at a Keller ISD school board meeting. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

A PAC-less fight

As more and more conservative money is poured into these races, some Tarrant parents are working to oppose the PAC-backed candidates — even if that means receiving online attacks and lies.

Hawes, whose four children attend Keller ISD, has been called the “expert in Libtardville” on Facebook by parents who support the three conservative candidates. She’s also been labeled as an extremist in private Facebook groups where she’s accused of working with a liberal organization in Austin to influence the Keller elections.

Hawes has gathered the support of 500 other Keller parents and started a grassroots effort to combat the conservative money.

The aim of the group, Hawes said, is to reach those who usually don’t vote in school board elections. But she said she knows that a group of parents who go door-to-door delivering at-home printed flyers will have a hard time competing against a much more sophisticated political apparatus.

“The challenge here is we’re not well funded,” Hawes said. “They’re just a bunch of parents busy with a bunch of kids, paying for soccer teams and dance classes.”

Craig Allen is a Keller school board member seeking another term. He is running against Micah Young, whom Patriot Mobile Action is supporting. He said that when he first won a seat in 2008, candidates needed less than $1,000 to mount a successful campaign.

This time around, Allen has raised over $10,000 — a number dwarfed by his opponents’ PAC-stocked war chests. None of his money has come from PACs, and about half has come in over the last few weeks as he makes a final push. Allen said parents have a right to be involved in their children’s education, but political issues should not be relevant to school board elections.

Julie Nors is running for a Keller school board seat against Joni Shaw Smith, who is supported by Patriot Mobile Action. Nors, who has raised less than $2,000, said the amount of time administrators are spending on political issues takes away from helping students recover from pandemic learning loss.

Allen said he “never would’ve dreamed” if someone had told him he needed to raise so much money for a school board seat.

“This wildly exceeds what I would have guessed even a few weeks ago,” he said.

Dialing in on the money

Patriot Mobile isn’t the only big money player in the Tarrant County school board races. Southlake Families PAC and KISD Family Alliance PAC have also raised tens of thousands of dollars to push anti-CRT candidates in their school board races.

KISD Family Alliance spent almost $25,000 on political consulting and advertising in April. On Monday, prominent Texas GOP donor Monty Bennett gave $10,000 to the PAC, filings show. Bennett did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

And filings indicate the Southlake Families PAC, which says it is “unapologetically rooted in Judeo-Christian values,” spent almost twice as much — at least $45,000 — on Carroll ISD school board races from March 29 to April 27.

Conservatives believe that if they don’t fight back at what they see as a liberal agenda making its way into schools, then they will have lost, said Jones, the Rice University professor.

“If you really want to win, you need the money to do it,” he said.

Coburn said Patriot Mobile chose four districts it considers to be “at risk” or on the “front lines” of the critical race theory battle. He said the point of the local races is to ensure the “right people” hold power to combat alleged attempts to push “liberal ideologies” like critical race theory.

“We’re going to stand up and fight against that all day long,” he said.

Disclosure: Facebook, Rice University and the University of Texas at Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/05/texas-school-board-elections/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Gov. Greg Abbott taps into parent anger to fuel reelection campaign

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott made a promise to Texas parents.

In the midst of continuing Republican-led political fights over what is allowed to be taught in public schools — namely over race, gender and sex — Abbott has put parental rights at the center of his reelection platform. Last week, Abbott made a pitch that he wants to solidify parental rights as an amendment to the Texas Constitution.

“Parents will be restored to their rightful place as the preeminent decision-maker for their children,” Abbott assured those at his campaign event last week at a charter school in Lewisville.

Abbott’s announcement on Thursday has been a building up over the past two years as two things have placed public schools in the sightlines of conservatives: the move by public schools to include a more comprehensive approach when teaching American history — one that includes a frank discussion of racism and its impact — and parental stress over school closures caused by the pandemic.

So far, Abbott’s promise is light on details. But it’s not the details that are remarkable, but the gesture itself. Experts — and current law — say that parents already have rights — and the announcement can be seen by some as a way to score points with pandemic-weary Texas parents.

“‘Parental rights’ has become a proxy for the anger people feel about government, specifically towards public schools,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “This ‘bill of rights’ is mostly a repackaging of policies already in place, including current law and recently passed regulations, but the bright bow on the package is politically attractive.”

For the past year, many parents have felt like schools let them down and Abbott has seen a window to capitalize on that, Rottinghaus said.

Abbott has quickly become more outspoken about the actions of school boards and how schools approve books in their libraries as well as social studies lessons, particularly when it comes to teaching about history and slavery’s long-term on American society.

And with last week’s speech, Abbott is following a recent national conservative roadmap that is proving successful.

Across the country, conservatives are campaigning more on the notion that “critical race theory” is taught in secondary public schools and it must be eradicated because, as they say, it unfairly makes white children feel bad. Most notably, Virginia’s newest governor campaigned on a pledge to ban the teaching of so-called critical race theory, which in actuality is an approach to thinking about history that is so far not being taught at all in Texas schools.

In his speech in Lewisville, Abbott touted how he stood firm against schools requiring mask-wearing during the pandemic and how his administration pushed for the reopening of schools. Last fall, Abbott signed a bill regulating how race is taught in schools. He and others continue to label it a law that bans critical race theory but the measure never mentions it. Critical race theory is the study of how race has influenced not only human behavior but shaped laws and policies.

Regarding the state constitution, the Texas Legislature would first have to approve a joint resolution before such a measure goes before voters for final approval.

The “Parental Rights and Responsibilities” section of the state education code gives parents a wide range of access and veto powers when it comes to their children. They can remove their child temporarily from a class or activity that conflicts with their religious beliefs. They have the right to review all instructional materials, and the law guarantees them access to their student’s records and to a school principal or administrator. Also, school boards must establish a way to consider complaints from parents.

Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the governor is most likely trying to mobilize voters before the primaries, where he is being challenged by Don Huffines, a former state senator who also has made so-called parental rights and limits on how race-related issues can be discussed in classrooms a part of his campaign. “This fits under the broader umbrella of concerns that social conservatives have about schools,” Deen said.

Rottinghaus also believes Abbott is setting the stage for the next legislative agenda, in which Republicans could use the parental “bill of rights” to make changes to the public education system.

“I don’t think Greg Abbott has a real horse in that race but he’s smart enough to see that this is what the Republican Party wants,” Rottinghaus said.

Education advocates and political opponents have criticized Abbott’s proposal, saying that it distracts from the real issues teachers, students and families are facing.

Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that Abbott is playing politics and creating more division. He said Abbott should instead be providing respect and support in a time where the pandemic continues to stress schools.

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said in a statement that the governor’s proposal won’t give parents any new rights and fears it will be used to place new mandates on schools.

“On behalf of the state’s largest community of educators, I urge voters to compare their personal experiences with Texas public schools to the governor’s rhetoric —and make up their own minds,” Holmes said.

Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic candidate for governor, said Abbott’s agenda serves only as a distraction to the real problems that public schools are facing during the pandemic, such as the lack of resources available to them and teachers facing burnout.

Republicans focus on schools

In the past six months, Republican lawmakers have continued to target discussions about race and sexuality in schools.

In late October, parents at a North Texas school district pressured officials to remove a book from a high school library: “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, a 239-page graphic novel depicting Kobabe’s journey of gender identity and sexual orientation. The book contains a few pages of explicit illustrations depicting oral sex, which outraged parents in the district.

During the same month, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, sent a list of some 850 books about race and sexuality — including Kobabe’s — to school districts asking for information about how many are available on their campuses.

Then, in November, Abbott asked the Texas Education Agency to investigate criminal activity related to “the availability of pornography” in public schools, saying that the agency should refer such instances “for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”

Abbott has also asked the agency, along with the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and the State Board of Education, to develop statewide standards preventing “obscene content in Texas public schools.”

The TEA responded by opening an investigation into the Keller Independent School District and whether it gave students access to books with “sexually explicit content.”

Meanwhile, Texas Republicans are pushing to be more involved in school board races. On Dec. 6, the state Republican Party formed the Local Government Committee to work with county parties on backing candidates in nonpartisan local elections, where hot-button issues like mask mandates and the teaching of so-called critical race theory have become political stances.

It’s not surprising, Deen said, that schools are a campaign target this election season. In the 1980s, there were debates over creationism and evolution and how sex education should be taught. Now, campaigns are focused on how racism and sexual identity is discussed.

“Schools in general and school board meetings specifically have re-emerged as a hotbed for politics,” Deen said.

Disclosure: Association of Texas Professional Educators, University of Texas - Arlington and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Republican bill that limits how race, slavery and history are taught in Texas schools becomes law

A more restrictive law designed to keep “critical race theory” out of Texas public schools became law on Thursday.

Under the new law, a “teacher may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” The law doesn’t define what a controversial issue is. If a teacher does discuss these topics, they must “explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias.”

It also requires at least one teacher and one campus administrator at each school district to attend a civics training program that will teach educators how race and racism should be taught in Texas schools.

There are more than 1,200 school districts in Texas. The cost to develop and implement the training program alone would be about $14.6 million annually, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

Senate Bill 3, passed during the Texas Legislature’s second special session ending Sept. 2, replaces House Bill 3979, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed over the summer. At the time, Abbott said more needed to be done to “abolish” critical race theory in Texas classrooms and lawmakers went to work to craft a more restrictive measure. The result was SB 3.

“It's not just about what a teacher may or may not say,” said Chloe Latham Sikes, deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association. “It's also how they go about their class, how they design the class — how they might address really sensitive issues of race and gender and identity and sexism in their classrooms.”

Critical race theory is the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals. It’s an academic discipline taught at the university level. But it has become a common phrase used by conservatives to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools.

The new civics training mandated by the new law that requires attendance by at least one teacher and one campus administrator from each district will be created by the Texas Education Agency and it must be implemented no later than the 2025-2026 school year.

The state education agency has not yet released what this civics training program will look like. The law also requires the TEA to set up an advisory board for the training program.

The earlier attempt at a law to restrict what is taught in school caused so much confusion among educators that a North Texas administrator informed teachers at a training session in October that they had to provide materials that presented an “opposing” perspective of the Holocaust.

In records obtained by The Texas Tribune, the TEA has been advising school administrators that teachers should just continue teaching the current curriculum until the State Board of Education revises the social studies curriculum over the next year.

The new law also zeroed in on the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, a collection of essays that centered on how slavery and the contributions of Black Americans shaped the United States. With this law, students cannot be required to read the 1619 Project essays. It also bars students from receiving credit for working as a volunteer with a political campaign or interning for companies or organizations where they will be lobbying. Also, any school district that uses an online portal to assign learning material has to give parents access.

“All of this is really about routing out any acknowledgement of the salience of sex, race, gender and silencing those conversations, which, in the end, ultimately hurt students of color and students in the LGBTQ community,” Sikes said.

Disclosure: New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas Republican to investigate school districts’ books on race that 'make students feel discomfort'

"Texas House committee to investigate school districts' books on race and sexuality" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A Republican state lawmaker has launched an investigation into Texas school districts over the type of books they have, particularly if they pertain to race or sexuality or "make students feel discomfort."

State Rep. Matt Krause, in his role as chair of the House Committee on General Investigating, notified the Texas Education Agency that he is "initiating an inquiry into Texas school district content," according to an Oct. 25 letter obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Krause's letter provides a 16-page list of about 850 book titles and asks the districts if they have these books, how many copies they have and how much money they spent on the books.

His list of titles includes bestsellers and award winners alike, from the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner" by William Styron and “Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates to last year's book club favorites: “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot" by Mikki Kendall and Isabel Wilkerson's “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents."

But race is not the only thing on the committee chair's list. Other listed books Krause wants school districts to account for are about teen pregnancy, abortion and homosexuality, including “LGBT Families" by Leanne K. Currie-McGhee, “The Letter Q: Queer Writers' Notes to their Younger Selves" edited by Sarah Moon, and Michael J. Basso's “The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality: An Essential Handbook for Today's Teens and Parents."

Krause, a Fort Worth lawmaker and founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, is running for state attorney general against Ken Paxton. Krause declined to comment and no explanation was given as to how these books were chosen.

Krause sent notice of the investigation to Lily Laux, the Texas Education Agency deputy commissioner of school programs, as well as some Texas school superintendents. His letter did not specify which school districts Krause was investigating.

Krause informs districts they must provide the committee with the number of copies they have of each book, on what part of campus those books are located and how much money schools spent on the books, as well as information on any other book that violates House Bill 3979, the so-called “critical race theory law"designed to limit how race-related subjects are taught in public schools. Critical race theory, the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals is an academic discipline taught at the university level. But it has become a common phrase used by conservatives to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools.

The law states a teacher cannot “require or make part of a course" a series of race-related concepts, including the ideas that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex" or that someone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive" based on their race or sex.

School officials have until Nov. 12 to respond. It is unclear what will happen to the districts that have such books.

The letter did not give a specific reason that Krause was launching the investigation, only that “the committee may initiate inquiries concerning any 'matter the committee considers necessary for the information of the legislature or for the welfare and protection of state citizens.'"

Lake Travis Independent School District officials received the letter and are trying to figure out what the next steps are, a spokesperson said. Officials are speaking with other school districts to figure out what this means for them.

State Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, who is vice chair of the committee, said she had no idea Krause was launching the investigation but believes it's a campaign tactic. She found out about the letter after a school in her district notified her.

“His letter is reflective of the Republican Party's attempt to dilute the voice of people of color," she said.

Neave said she doesn't know what Krause is trying to do but will investigate the motive and next steps.

The TEA and the rest of the Committee on General Investigating members did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said it doesn't surprise him that Krause has taken initiative on a conservative item, especially since there is crowded field in the Texas attorney general race.

“He's not well known statewide, and so he needs to put down a pretty tall conservative flag to get notice," Rottinghaus said. “As a political statement, it certainly conveys the clear message that the Republicans are watching."

Rottinghaus said he doesn't recall a time in recent memory when legislatures have taken the role of investigating school districts.

“The monitoring of this definitely is a political statement and so the fact that the legislature is attentive to it definitely implies that they're not going to drop the issue," he said.

Jim Walsh, an attorney, who often represents school districts, pointed out there is nothing in the law that says books must be removed and Krause's investigation also doesn't call for books to be removed. For now, it's up to school districts to decide how they will respond, but what's certain is that it will add more workload to Texas schools that are already struggling from the effects of the pandemic.

Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement that the investigation is a “witch hunt" and that nothing in state law gives lawmakers the right to go after educators.

“This is an obvious attack on diversity and an attempt to score political points at the expense of our children's education," she said.

Krause's investigation comes after several school districts across the state removed books from libraries because of parental outcry.

Earlier this month, the Carroll Independent School District board in Southlake reprimanded a fourth grade teacher who had an anti-racist book in her classroom after a parent complained about it last year.

Then, in a separate incident this month, a Carroll ISD administrator asked teachers to provide materials that presented an “opposing" perspective of the Holocaust in an effort to comply with HB 3979. The law, which comes with little to no guidance, has caused confusion and fear among teachers and administrators, who have seemingly misinterpreted the law.

In the Katy Independent School District, a school removed a book after parents claimed it promoted “critical race theory," which the district later found to be untrue and reinstated the book.

Disclosure: Texas State Teachers Association and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/26/texas-school-books-race-sexuality/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

The law that prompted a school administrator to call for an 'opposing' perspective on the Holocaust is causing confusion across Texas

A new Texas law designed to limit how race-related subjects are taught in public schools comes with so little guidance, the on-the-ground application is already tying educators up in semantic knots as they try to follow the Legislature's intent.

In the most striking instance so far, a North Texas administrator informed teachers last week at a training session on House Bill 3979 that they had to provide materials that presented an “opposing" perspective of the Holocaust. A recording of the Oct. 8 training at Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, obtained by NBC News, has reignited the debate over the so-called “critical race theory law."

“Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979," Gina Peddy, Carroll ISD 's executive director of curriculum and instruction, is heard telling teachers on that recording. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing — that has other perspectives."

It's not the first time the Carroll school district in Southlake — the affluent suburb that sits between Fort Worth and Dallas — has made news with its interpretation of the new law, which is an attempt to keep critical race theory, or CRT, an academic discipline usually taught at the university level, out of schools. Critical race theory's central idea is that racism is not something restricted to individuals. Instead, the theory contends that bias is something embedded in policies and legal systems.

Two weeks ago, the Carroll school board voted 3-2 to reprimand a fourth grade teacher who had an anti-racist book in her classroom after a parent complained about it last year. And Southlake's earlier struggles with a school diversity and inclusion plan — as well as how parents opposed to the plan started a political movement there — were the subject of a seven-part NBC podcast released earlier this year.

The Texas law states a teacher cannot "require or make part of a course" a series of race-related concepts, including the ideas that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex," or that someone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive" based on their race or sex.

Since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the anti-critical race theory bill into law June 15, reports of schools struggling to comply with it have surfaced, most notably in Southlake.

Since then, one Carroll teacher covered a classroom library with yellow “DO NOT ENTER" tape. Last week, NBC reported that teachers there have been given scoring tools known as rubrics. Those scoring sheets, also obtained by The Texas Tribune, ask teachers to move through a complicated chart to evaluate library offerings to make sure they are in compliance with the new state law.

A classroom library selection rubric from the Carroll Independent School District north of Fort Worth, used to determine whether a book has met the standards laid out by HB3979, A bill created to limit the teaching of Critical Race Theory and other controversial topics in Texas Schools.

A classroom library selection rubric from the Carroll Independent School District. Credit: Obtained by The Texas Tribune

The cards ask teachers to consider whether an author of each book has provided multiple perspectives. If an author “provides balanced information by providing multiple perspectives," the book is given a maximum of two points. A book may get zero points if the “author perspective/bias distorts content, making the material inappropriate for use with students."

In one email sent to teachers, also obtained by the Tribune, Carroll ISD administrators told teachers that classroom libraries could not be used until they have been vetted, using the rubrics.

“We want your staff to know that the classroom libraries will continue to be available for students, but we will continue to vet the material in those libraries for the remainder of the semester," an email sent to teachers read.

After news surfaced this week about Southlake's Holocaust guidance to teachers, state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, wrote a letter Thursday to Mike Morath, the Texas Education Agency commissioner, requesting a review of how school districts are implementing the law to “refute hateful and racist rhetoric in our Texas public schools."

“When this bill passed legislators warned that racist attacks would occur. It is our job to take every step possible to ensure an open and diverse forum, without subjecting our children to racism and hateful rhetoric," Menéndez wrote.

State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, tweeted Thursday simply that “Southlake just got it wrong."

He added, “School administrators should know the difference between factual historical events and fiction. ... No legislation is suggesting the action this administrator is promoting."

Paul Tapp, attorney with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said his organization has received questions from teachers because they don't know what they can teach. A biology teacher asked if they should give equal time to creationism and evolution.

“These are two good examples of what the dangers of this kind of law are," Tapp said. “The point of public education is to introduce the world to students. It's not there to protect students from the world."

Carroll ISD Superintendent Lane Ledbetter quickly clarified late Thursday that the comments made in the training “were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history."

“As we continue to work through implementation of HB3979, we also understand this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts," Ledbetter said.

Still, Carroll is not the only district in the state struggling with how to conform to the new law.

In Katy Independent School District earlier this month, administrators postponed an event by critically acclaimed author Jerry Craft after parents claimed his books "New Kid" and "Class Act" promoted critical race theory. The district removed the books, reversed itself and rescheduled the author event after a review committee deemed the books did not contain offensive material.

Katy ISD did not respond to an interview request.

In June, in what seemed to be the first application of HB 3979, McKinney school officials ended their students' participation in the nationwide Youth and Government class. A McKinney social studies curriculum coordinator wrote to educators that “in light of" the new law's ban on political activism and policy advocacy, “we will no longer be allowed [to] offer Youth & Government as an elective course for credit."

The cancellation of the elective course appeared to be a misapplication and one of the first instances that resulted in educators trying hard to understand the new law. So far, the law only applies to required social studies classes, not electives like the McKinney class. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, the bill's author, said in June that the Youth and Government elective “doesn't have anything to do with lobbying members, so there is no reason [McKinney] would have to cancel it."

Following the Legislature's intent may get even more complicated for schools, teachers and parents in the coming months. This December, Senate Bill 3, authored by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and passed in the state's second special session in August, will place more restrictions on a school's curriculum.

SB 3 says that at least one teacher and one campus administrator at each school must undergo a civics training program. Also, it says teachers cannot be forced to discuss current controversial topics in the classroom, regardless of whether in a social studies class or not. If they do, they must not show any political bias, the law says.

“What I would hope most of all is that school districts will actually read the law, and apply the law as written and not go beyond what the law actually requires them to do," Tapp said. “As soon as I read the bills, I expected that this would be the result of it, and I don't think we've heard the last of it."

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/15/Texas-critical-race-theory-law-confuses-educators/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas AG sues 6 school districts for defying Greg Abbott and mandating masks

For the first time in the Texas mask wars, Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing six school districts that have defied Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on local masking orders.

Paxton on Friday sued the Elgin, Galveston, Richardson, Round Rock, Sherman and Spring school districts for requiring students, teachers, school employees and visitors to don face coverings while on their premises, which he dubbed "unlawful political maneuvering."

"If districts choose to spend their money on legal fees, they must do so knowing that my office is ready and willing to litigate these cases," Paxton said in a statement. "I have full confidence that the courts will side with the law – not acts of political defiance."

Dozens of school districts across the state have defied Abbott and issued mask mandates. It was not immediately clear late Friday why Paxton chose the six districts he sued.

The governor's executive order bars local officials from compelling people to wear masks. Until this week, Abbott and Paxton have been on defense as several school districts, cities and counties in the state's major metropolitan areas have sued over the order — or outright ignored it.

Some 85 school districts and six counties have instituted mask mandates of some kind in defiance of Abbott's ban — citing the need to protect schoolchildren too young to get the vaccine amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

The legal push-and-pull between the state's Republican leadership and local officials has led to a patchwork of rules about mask-wearing across the state as judges uphold, revoke and reinstate the various requirements, creating confusion for Texans about whether they or their kids must wear a mask.

Abbott had called on Texas lawmakers to send him a bill that would definitively stop school officials from requiring students, teachers and other school employees to wear face coverings. But the prospect never gained steam in the Legislature.

Abbott and Paxton for weeks have threatened local governments and public schools that adopted masking rules with legal action — a threat Paxton made good on this week.

Round Rock Independent School District officials did not comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement that the mask requirement is helping their schools stay open.

"We do work closely with both our local health authorities in Williamson and Travis counties who advise us that masks remain an essential tool in stemming the spread of COVID-19 in our classrooms," Round Rock ISD officials said.

Spring Independent School District officials haven't yet seen Paxton's lawsuit, they said in a statement Friday — and only learned about it through a press release from the attorney general's office.

"Spring ISD will let the legal process unfold and allow the courts to decide the merits of the case," officials said.

Richardson Independent School District officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The remaining school districts did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In at least one lawsuit filed Thursday evening, Paxton asked a Galveston County judge to temporarily halt Galveston Independent School District's mask mandate — arguing that Abbott has the power to override local emergency orders.

Abbott's order "has the force and effect of state law and must be followed, regardless of whether local officials agree with it," Paxton wrote in the lawsuit.

However, neither Abbott nor Paxton have the power to enforce the governor's ban themselves, they have argued in court documents.

In addition, the Texas Education Agency isn't requiring schools to comply with Abbott's ban. That move so far has led the Biden administration to leave Texas out of a federal investigation into a group of states that have blocked school districts from mandating masks.

More Texas students tested positive for COVID-19 last week than at any time last school year

Even as some Texas schools hadn't yet started the school year, the number of positive COVID-19 student cases statewide reported last week surpassed the peak seen any time last year, state data released Friday shows.

Between Aug. 16 and Aug. 22, there were 14,033 positive cases reported among students across the state, 34% more than the week with the most student cases reported last school year, the Department of State Health Services data shows. Last week's totals also represent a 182% increase from the week ending Aug. 15, though fewer students were in school then.

There have been 20,256 reported cases among students since the state agency started tracking data on Aug. 2 for this school year. That's less than 0.4% of the 5.3 million students enrolled in the state as of January. Districts with the highest rates of cases include Midland, Humble, Conroe, Corpus Christi and New Caney, all of which reported more than 10 new cases per 1,000 students, based on January enrollment numbers.

Out of these school districts, Corpus Christi is the only district with a mask mandate, and it was recently issued for 30 days after school officials saw a rise in cases.

Districts were allowed to require masks last school year. But for the better part of the last month, the rules around masking requirements have gone back and forth in Texas courts.

Gov. Greg Abbott has tried to ban mask mandates in schools. But some school districts have decided to continue the masking orders anyway, joining lawsuits that have had varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, the battle has raged in local school districts for weeks as concerned parents on both sides continue to clash. In one instance in Eanes ISD on the outskirts of Austin, the tension led to verbal assault and a parent ripping a mask off a teacher.

State officials said they did not know how many districts have already started school or what share of students those districts serve. At this point last year, districts with slightly less than half of all students had started class, and the state had reported 313 positive cases among students.

Among staff members, there have been 3,425 positive cases reported through the week ending Aug. 22, a 26% increase from the week before.

The rise in cases among students comes as hospitals across Texas continue to fill up and intensive care unit beds become scarce. In more rural districts, schools have already had to shut down because of fears that cases among staff and students could overwhelm already strained hospital systems.

Most school districts are not offering virtual learning for the start of the year, since the state did not fund that option. Some school districts are offering remote learning but are using federal funds to recoup lost dollars.

With no virtual option widely available in most districts, parents feared a possible uptick in cases in schools, especially because the more transmissible delta variant is to blame for the current surge in cases and hospitalizations.

The Texas House is scheduled to vote Friday evening on a bill that would expand and provide districts with funding for virtual learning.

Under the latest Texas Education Agency guidance, schools can offer remote conferencing for up to 20 days for students who are sick with COVID-19 or have been exposed to it. Schools can apply for waivers if more than 20 days are needed.

A COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12 is not yet available. Best-case scenarios suggest it could be late September or early October before one is approved.

Frantic parents search for options to keep kids safe in Texas schools

Heather Robertson has been on lockdown since March 2020. While restaurants, stadiums and stores have reopened across the state, Robertson and her Sugar Land family have not been afforded the comfort of pre-pandemic life.

Her 7-year-old son, Reid, had a liver transplant when he was 10 months old, leaving him immunosuppressed and more at risk for complications from COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, it was hard for Reid to fight off viruses.

Her other son, 11-year-old Reece, isn't under the same predicament. But with COVID-19 surging once again, masking optional at his school and vaccines not available for children under 12, he runs the risk of passing the virus along to his brother. So Robertson is scrambling to find a safer option for her kids.

That scramble is being replicated across the state by school administrators, teachers and other parents. For the second straight school year, schools must worry about how to keep their staff and their children safe and ensure that they're providing the best possible education during a pandemic that has killed more than 50,000 Texans. Complicating the matter this year: Gov. Greg Abbott has banned mask mandates in schools and the state will not provide funding for remote learning.

It's still unclear when vaccines will be available for those under 12, but best-case scenarios suggest it could be late September or early October before they're approved.

Worried parents across the state have found some hope this week as big-city school districts such as Austin, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio and other Bexar County schools opted to defy Abbott and require masking for everyone on campus.

Under Abbott's executive order, districts or government entities can be fined $1,000, but it is unclear how this would apply to school districts. Abbott, along with Attorney General Ken Paxton, made clear this week that they plan to take school districts to court if they don't comply with his order.

And Paxton on Wednesday told Dallas radio host Mark Davis that Texas could go the route of Florida, where the GOP governor there, Ron DeSantis, has threatened to pull the funding of school districts that violate his ban on mask mandates. Paxton said the Texas Legislature would have to be involved, but he thinks there are "definitely avenues [Abbott] will look at — we'll look at with him — to enforce these laws."

In El Paso, where school started more than a week ago, Jewel Contreras sends her young daughters to school with masks, even though El Paso ISD is not requiring them.

"That doesn't really do anything because they come home and they're not wearing masks," she said.

Contreras said her daughter's dad is epileptic and if he gets sick it triggers seizures. If virtual learning was an option at El Paso ISD, they wouldn't have to worry about the potential health risks. If cases keep rising, Contreras said she will consider pulling her daughters out and home schooling them.

For Robertson, the Sugar Land parent, the same concerns arise. Masking is optional at Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, and like many other school districts across the state, there is no virtual learning option.

Last spring, when the pandemic hit, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath issued a waiver allowing districts to receive full funding for virtual learning. That has since expired and a bill that would've established and expanded virtual learning this fall died in the regular session after Texas House Democrats walked out to prevent passage of a GOP-backed bill that would outlaw local voting options, among several other changes to state elections.

During this month's special legislative session, Senate Bill 15, another virtual learning bill similar to the one considered in the regular session, was approved by a committee in the Texas Senate on Tuesday. The bill allows for school districts and charter schools that received a C grade or higher in the most recent round of state accountability grades to offer remote learning to students. Under the bill, however, districts can't have more than 10% of their student population enrolled online.

The measure has provisions to keep virtual learning in place until 2027, but several senators can't get behind that. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested the bill end in 2023, when the Legislature will meet again.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, also expressed concerns over the bill going beyond 2023.

"It seems to me that we are having a titanic shift in philosophy at some level over a crisis that we know is temporary," Perry said.

Either way, the future of the bill is uncertain. Democrats have not returned to the state House as they continue to protest the elections bill. Until enough of them return, the chamber can't pass any legislation.

Bob Popinski, director of Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy and research group, said his organization believes the best form of instruction is in person. But with coronavirus scrapping plans, the organization supports bills like SB 15 that allow school districts to create their own local virtual learning programs.

Some school districts have heard the cries of parents and will offer virtual learning at the cost of their budgets. Austin, Frisco, Round Rock, Leander, Pflugerville, Richardson, Lake Travis and Del Valle school districts are each offering some form of virtual learning, mostly for kids under the age of 12.

Round Rock Independent School District has more than 2,000 students signed up for virtual learning, according to spokesperson Jenny Caputo. That will cost the district between $8 million to $10 million per semester, depending on final figures.

While Round Rock ISD did receive funding from the federal government through both the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, that won't be enough to cover the costs because the district already had a deficit due to the shutdown of 2020.

"We're just relying on our current budget on being able to find savings where we can," Caputo said. "However, you know this isn't sustainable long term."

In Austin ISD, more than 7,000 families enrolled for the virtual option but only about 4,034 were accepted. Austin ISD spokesperson Eddie Villa said it will cost the district $10,100 per student, putting the bill at about $40.7 million. About 2,388 of those children are out of district. The district offered the option to out-of-district families because of limited virtual options during the latest coronavirus surge.

Villa said the district's plan is to pay for that through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, but that could change as the district looks at its finances.

Other districts offering virtual options will also look toward the federal money to pay for it. In Frisco, the school district has about 8,100 students choosing the virtual option, costing the district about $20 million.

Frisco officials, though, say they are going to use money that the state is giving them in discretionary ESSER funds. Frisco ISD is set to receive about $33 million.

"I won't say that I didn't lose sleep over proposing this option," said Mike Waldrip, Frisco ISD superintendent. "We just felt compelled as a district to do this in response to the disease level and what we're seeing in preliminary research that [the delta variant] may be affecting children differently and we've got this age group of children that don't have vaccination as an option."

In rural communities, such as Caldwell ISD, virtual learning is not only a funding issue, but an accessibility one, said Superintendent Andrew Peters.

"Fifty percent of my families are in poverty," Peters said. "They don't have strong internet, they're working off of a cellphone, you know, they don't have a big 20-inch computer screen."

Peters said a lot of people in those families got laid off during the pandemic, and while they want their kids to do well in school, sometimes they're more worried about what they're going to eat rather than how their kid is doing on a computer screen.

"I'm not opposed to [virtual learning]," he said. "I just don't think that our society is built for that kind of learning environment."

During Tuesday's Senate Education Committee hearing, senators especially expressed concerns over how recent STAAR test scores suggested that remote learning led to considerable learning loss for students over the last year and a half. Morath told senators that the percentage of kids excelling in virtual education is "very small" and estimates that learning loss wiped out between 10 to 20 years of statewide educational gains.

In districts where fewer than a quarter of classes were held in person, the number of students who met math test expectations dropped by 32 percentage points, and the number of students who met reading expectations dropped by 9 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time the test was administered.

The learning loss was particularly exacerbated in Hispanic communities. Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared with students in other demographic groups, with a 10-percentage-point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34-percentage-point decrease in those meeting math expectations.

But still, for parents like Robertson, virtual learning is the best alternative. She said at least if her children struggled, she was there to help them and still had the assurance that they were safe.

Her 11-year-old, Reece, will attend the Texas Connections Academy at Houston, a full-time virtual school that is part of the Texas Virtual School Network under the TEA. There are seven such schools and most teach grades between 3 to 12. Reid is in second grade, which isn't offered.

One of the schools, iUniversity Prep serves grades 5 to 12, but has a cap on how many students it receives each year. Spokesperson Kaye Rogers said the cap sits at about 1,400 and they usually attract kids who are actors, elite athletes or have health issues. The school has seen more calls coming from parents with coronavirus concerns but they haven't been swarmed by requests, she said.

The Texas Tribune contacted the six other online schools but did immediately get a response for an interview request.

For now, Robertson is waiting for LCISD to approve her homebound instruction request. Usually, homebound instruction is given to students that are confined to their home or a hospital. Students receive at least four hours of instruction per week and otherwise independently work on assignments.

Still, Robertson is wary of homebound instruction because that will mean someone outside her household has to come to her home and give that work to her child. Another option for parents is home schooling. The Texas Home School Coalition, which advocates for and provides resources to home schooling families, has reported that its call and email volume doubled to 1,016 during the last week of July, up from 536 the week before.

"In 2020 we saw the largest surge in home schooling in history. It appears that renewed concern about COVID-19 may be about to replicate a similar trend for 2021," THSC president Tim Lambert said in a statement.

Some teachers and parents are eager to return to classrooms. Stephanie Stoebe, a fourth grade teacher at Teravista Elementary School in Round Rock, said she isn't worried about going back to school in person. She is vaccinated and takes the precautions necessary to be safe, she said.

She has cleaning protocols in place and will move desks apart. She also emphasized that families can send their children to schools with masks on. Policy is beyond her control, she said, but what she can do is be optimistic and give her students the best possible year.

"I'm really excited," Stoebe said. "It's going to be a fantastic year."

At the end of the day, parents like Robertson will have to make the decision that is right for their children.

"I've seen my child on a ventilator," she said. "It's really frightening — it changes you and I don't want that for anybody's child."