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The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

A bunch of well-financed wackos won school board races in Tarrant County

Not great.

All but one of the 11 Tarrant County conservative school board candidates, who were backed this year by several high-profile donors and big-money PACs, defeated their opponents during Saturday’s statewide election, according to unofficial election results. The one candidate backed by the groups who didn’t win outright advances to a runoff election in June.

The 10 candidates won the school board races for the Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller, Mansfield and Carroll school districts.

The candidates’ sweep shows a large swath of voters across the county responded to their calls to eradicate so-called critical race theory from classrooms and remove books discussing LGBTQ issues, which concerned parents have described as “pornographic.” Education experts, school administrators and teachers all say that critical race theory, a university-level concept that examines the institutional legacies of racism, is not taught in classrooms.

The victories also show that the staggering amounts of money that were poured into the once low-profile and nonpartisan local races are producing their intended effect. PACs organized by parents, as well as a newly-formed PAC from a self-proclaimed Christian cell phone company, collectively raised over half a million dollars for the local races this year. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on top political consulting firms that bolstered an anti-CRT platform with flyers saying the candidates were “saving America.”

See here for some background, and here for the cumulative election results. Turnout was way up from 2018 and I’m sure the money and the hot-button issues played some role in that, but it was also the case that many of those races were uncontested four years ago, and I daresay the population of these suburbs is a lot higher now, so the turnout as a share of registered voters (we don’t have that data on the 2022 report, it may be there after the official canvass) may be up by a smaller amount. I don’t mean to diminish what happened, I’m just trying to give some context. Anyone who knows more about the area or those races, please feel free to chime in.

It’s also instructive to compare to the 2020 election, where you may recall that the May races were postponed until November of that year due to COVID. Not all of those ISDs had races in 2020, or at least races that were reported by the Tarrant County election office, but Grapevine and Mansfield did, and the turnout comparison is of interest – I’ve listed the races in ascending order of total voters:

Grapevine 2018 = 6,666
Grapevine 2022 = 12,001
Grapevine 2020 = 45,453

Mansfield 2018 = 4,022
Mansfield 2022 = 11,035
Mansfield 2020 = 74,523

The 2020 totals for Grapevine and Mansfield are exaggerated a bit, as there were 10K undervotes in Grapevine (so about 35K actual voters there) and 23K undervotes in Mansfield (51K actual voters). It’s still the case that the November elections had vastly more participants, even in this charged and big-money environment. I don’t know how the Grapevine and Mansfield wingnut candidates might have done in a turnout context like that, or like what this November would be, which is to say less than 2020 but still considerably more than May, but those were the closest races among those reported in this story. For sure, it was easier for those outside agitators to have a more effective channel to the voters, without a much-bigger-money top of the ticket drowning them out. Against that, it may be that the default voter in those districts would have leaned towards the wingnuts anyway, just based on what they might have absorbed by osmosis. I say this all to note once again that the right wing activists once thought that forcing school board elections to be held in November of even-numbered years would partisanize them in their favor. I don’t think they think that now, and you can cite these races as evidence for it.

Some Dallas-area school board races are really crazy

We’re going to see more of this, I’m afraid.

New political action committees targeting North Texas school board seats are spending big money on conservative rallying cries ahead of Saturday’s elections.

Some Richardson voters, for example, received mailers decorated with baby blocks with the letters CRT. “RISD schools can’t teach the basics if they’re too busy teaching ‘critical race theory’ nonsense,” the flyers read.

It’s yet another sign of how local school board races are now the front lines of Republican culture war issues, such as those on race, gender, library books and parental choice.

At least 10 conservative PACs are trumpeting “taking back” school boards as they funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence local races.

Some are tapping the same consulting groups, including GOP heavy hitter Axiom Strategies, which worked with Sen. Ted Cruz and helped on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s strategy in Virginia.

Last month, Axiom received more than $100,000 from at least four local conservative PACs and a handful of the candidates they endorsed for school boards in Richardson, Keller, Highland Park and Southlake. Those funds largely went toward mailers, according to April 29 campaign finance filings.

“Usually those [races] would be below the radar screen for national-level political operations,” said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU supports The Education Lab). “But so many of the really hot-button contentious issues over the last couple of years have been fought out at the school board level that it’s not surprising to start to see some of that.”

Axiom vice president Nick Maddux said in a statement that his firm works to win tough races across the nation.

“High-intensity school board campaigns have become the new norm,” he said.

Patriot Mobile Action, tied to a Texas-based cellphone company, spent more than $400,000 supporting conservative candidates in four North Texas school board races, NBC News reported. The PAC endorsed 11 candidates in Keller, Mansfield, Carroll and Grapevine Colleyville, according to its website.

It still has over $100,000 cash on hand, finance records show.

Meanwhile, several PACs are collectively spending tens of thousands of dollars with a group called Edgerton Strategies, a group with little online presence. It is registered to a lawyer in Wyoming but run by Erik Leist, a Keller father who does marketing work. He said he got involved with the different groups based on word-of-mouth.

Leist previously did communications work with a KISD parent who challenged a library book and disputed the district’s process for reviewing it.

Heading into the final stretch, the KISD Family Alliance PAC got a financial bump: A $10,000 donation from Monty Bennett, CEO of Ashford Inc. The hotelier is a major Republican donor.

While trustee races are technically nonpartisan, their work has become increasingly politicized over the past two years as ideological battles raged over COVID-19 protocols and how schools should discuss race and gender.

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s not just in the Dallas area that these large sums of PAC money are pouring in to support wingnut candidates – John Coby has been documenting this for CCISD races. There’s been a bit of coverage on this in the Chron, but not nearly as detailed.

There was a time in the aughts during Tom Craddick’s Speakership when some Republicans wanted to mandate school board elections be held in November of even-numbered years, on the theory that this would necessarily make them more partisan, and that would work in Republicans’ favor. Clearly, they didn’t need the races to be in November for the partisanship. I don’t know what to expect today, but I won’t be surprised to wake up tomorrow and find out that a lot of terrible people are now on a bunch of school boards. Unfortunately, these are the times we are now in.

Abbott sees another opportunity to hurt children

He is definitely making this a habit.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to “resurrect” a court challenge over a 1975 Texas law withholding state funds from school districts for kids who were not “legally admitted” into the United States. That law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1982.

He made the remarks in an interview Wednesday on the Joe Pags radio show.

“The challenges put on our public systems is extraordinary,” Abbott said before referencing Plyler v. Doe, the ruling that overturned the Texas law. “I think that we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many years ago.”

In that case, the court ruled that “education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society,” and withholding it from the children of immigrants in the country without paperwork “does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.” People living without documentation in the country remain people “in any ordinary sense of the term” and are thus entitled to the same basic rights as anyone else in the country.

We’re going to see a lot more of this, because people like Abbott have realized that SCOTUS is now a cheat code for achieving whatever policy ends they want, without having to legislate them. You could say that the policy he seeks to achieve here is the reversal of one that had been done via the court and not the legislative process. The difference is that the litigants in the Plyler case had to win on the merits and could have lost. They didn’t get to count on having a majority on the court that was ideologically on their side and willing to use their power towards that end.

If you can’t see what a public policy disaster it would be, not to mention a moral catastrophe, to prevent children from getting an education, I’m really not sure what to tell you. As Stace says, it’s yet another reason to vote Abbott and the rest of his crew out of office in November. TPM, Daily Kos, the Texas Signal, and Amanda Marcotte have more.

Southlake keeps on Southlaking

On brand.

Seven months after teachers at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, went public with their concerns about an administrator’s advice to balance books on the Holocaust with titles that show “opposing” perspectives, district employees this week discovered that a new clause had been added to their annual employment contracts, listed under the heading: “Non-Disparagement.”

“You agree to not disparage, criticize, or defame the District, and its employees or officials, to the media,” it read.

Four Carroll teachers, speaking on the condition that they not be named because they feared retaliation, said they were disturbed by the new contract language.

“Only a district that is knowingly doing something wrong would choose to silence its entire staff,” one of them wrote in a text message to a reporter on Thursday.

“I hadn’t yet decided if I was going to leave, but it seems the district decided for me!” another wrote.

Officials for both the National Education Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, unions that represent teachers nationally and across Texas, condemned the contract language as an attempt to silence teachers.

“This is the first time we have heard of a school district putting that language into a teacher contract,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “It is a rejection of a teacher’s fundamental First Amendment rights. A teacher also is a taxpayer, who is entitled to criticize a public school district.”

Michael Leroy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that prohibiting public school employees from criticizing their district “is absolutely indefensible under the Constitution,” adding that the new clause in Carroll’s teacher contracts is “clearly unconstitutional. I mean, that’s not even a close call.”

Nondisparagement clauses are more common in the employment contracts of private companies, which are not subject to the First Amendment, Leroy said.

[…]

Leroy, the University of Illinois law professor, said the nondisparagement clause appears to violate a half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent that established the right of government employees to speak on matters of public importance, even if it means criticizing their employer.

In that 1968 case, Pickering v. Board of Education, the court found that a school district in Illinois violated a teacher’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for writing a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the school board for prioritizing funding for athletics over teacher salaries.

“If a teacher, and for that matter if a public employee, is speaking on a matter of public concern, it is protected speech,” Leroy said, noting that the only time he’s seen government employees asked to sign a nondisparagement clause has been in settlement agreements after public employees have been fired, not as a condition of their employment.

Two other labor law experts agreed that a blanket ban on teachers criticizing a public school district is probably unconstitutional.

A Carroll teacher, texting a reporter from her lunch break, summarized her reaction to the new contract language this way: “It seems like if we say anything to anyone then we’re screwed. What happened to freedom of speech?”

See here for the previous example. Maybe they need Elon Musk to buy Carroll ISD, if he has any cash left over after Twitter.

Lawsuit filed over Llano County libraries

This is going to be something to watch.

Seven Llano County residents filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the county judge, commissioners, library board members and library systems director for restricting and banning books from its three-branch public library system.

The lawsuit states that the county judge, commissioners and library director removed several books off shelves, suspended access to digital library books, replaced the Llano County library board with community members in favor of book bans, halted new library book orders and allowed the library board to close its meetings to the public in a coordinated censorship campaign that violates the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.

The plaintiffs — Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring and Diane Moster — insist their constitutional rights were violated when public officials censored books based on content and failed to provide proper notice or an avenue for community comment.

When the plaintiffs attempted to check out several removed books, they said, they were denied access.

“Public libraries are not places of government indoctrination. They are not places where the people in power can dictate what their citizens are permitted to read about and learn,” the lawsuit states. “When government actors target public library books because they disagree with and intend to suppress the ideas contained within them, it jeopardizes the freedoms of everyone.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Ellen Leonida said she plans to file a preliminary injunction this week to get books back on shelves and access to the digital library distributor, OverDrive, reinstated while the lawsuit is pending. Leonida also wants the lawsuit to serve as a warning that small groups like the one in this case cannot control the availability of books without legal resistance.

“They can’t censor books, unequivocally, based on viewpoints that they disagree with,” Leonida said.

[…]

In November, Bonnie Wallace, who eventually became the vice chair of the new Llano County library board, emailed Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham with a list of 60 books on Krause’s list that were available in Llano libraries, according to emails referenced in the lawsuit and obtained by The Texas Tribune. Later that day, Cunningham directed library system director Amber Milum to remove “all books that depict any type of sexual activity or questionable nudity.”

In addition to library books’ removal, Cunningham told librarians to stop ordering new publications in November, according to the lawsuit.

Listed as the lawsuit’s defendants were Cunningham; Llano County Commissioners Jerry Don Moss, Peter Jones, Mike Sandoval and Linda Raschke; Milum, the library director; and library board members Rochelle Wells, Rhonda Schneider, Gay Baskin and Wallace.

I had to reread this and then check Google to make sure I got this right: We are talking about the PUBLIC LIBRARIES in Llano County, not the school libraries. Do you want Commissioners Court deciding what books you can read? I didn’t think so. Here’s some local coverage with more details.

The lawsuit, “Little et al v. Llano County et al,” is a direct result of recent actions taken by Llano County officials within the library system, including the recent removal of books from library shelves, switching the library system’s online reading services from OverDrive to Bibliotheca, the dissolution and creation of the county’s Library Advisory Board, and the March 9 termination of the head librarian of the Kingsland Branch Library.

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of plaintiffs Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring, and Diane Moster, all of whom are Llano County residents and users of the library system.

[…]

The complaint claims county officials violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights laid out in the First Amendment, which protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press.

Some examples outlined in the legal document are the removal of 12 books, including “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen” by Jazz Jennings; the suspension of new book acquisitions; and the decision to discontinue use of the online reading service OverDrive, which now operates as Libby.

The complaint also states that the rights laid out in the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees U.S. citizens the right to due process, are being violated.

That part of the complaint argues that the aforementioned actions were done secretively and without due process as laid out in the county’s adopted policies and guidelines published by the Texas Library Association and other industry experts. It also references the county Library Advisory Board’s recent decision to close meetings to the public.

“Bringing legal claims under both the First and Fourteenth amendments allows Plaintiffs to ask the judge not only to order defendants to put banned books back on the shelves and reinstate OverDrive access, but also to mandate certain procedural protections be put in place to ensure that defendants can’t engage in this kind of censorship again in the future,” said Amy Senia, an associate with BraunHagey & Borden.

Evidence provided in the legal document includes direct quotes from emails and other correspondence sent between county officials, advisory board members, and library staff.

The story provides a PACER link to court documents. You lawyers out there, please weigh in on this one. There was a recent Washington Post story about how the fervor for banning books in schools had metastasized into doing the same at public libraries, with Llano County as the focus; there’s a reprint of it here. My favorite detail is that the “new library board stacked with conservative appointees” includes several people who don’t even have library cards. Because of course they don’t. I think you can guess how I’ll be rooting in this one. Daily Kos and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: Speaking of school libraries, there’s some action on that front as well.

The ACLU of Texas last week sent a letter accusing San Antonio’s North East Independent School District of violating the First Amendment by permanently banning 110 books from its school libraries last month.

The April 20 letter, first reported locally by the Express-News, also accused the district of violating its own polices with the book removal. The ACLU demands that the district return the tomes to its shelves, apologize for its “grave missteps” and commit to educating its students on the United States’ “history of racism.”

“All books recommended for removal must be placed back on North East ISD shelves as swiftly as possible,” the ACLU writes. “If the district seeks to review any books for removal in the future, it must follow its written policy for doing so.”

I’ll keep an eye on that as well.

Early voting for the May 7 elections begins tomorrow

We all have at least one election to vote in, so get ready to get out there.

On May 7, Texas voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on two proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as a number of other contests, from local propositions to city council seats.

Early voting for the May 7 elections runs from Monday, April 25, through Tuesday, May 3. As always, polls will be open on Election Day, Saturday, May 7, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

[…]

To vote by mail in Texas, you must be 65 years old or older, sick or disabled, out of the county on Election Day and during the early voting period or confined in jail but otherwise eligible.

The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot for the May 7 election is Tuesday, April 26 (received, not postmarked).

This will be a good chance to see if any counties have learned from the March mail ballot debacle and taken steps to reduce the number of rejected ballots. That responsibility very much falls on the political parties as well, and the May 24 primary runoffs will be the bigger test for them. I will be keeping a close eye on this.

(By the way, tomorrow is also the deadline to register to vote for the primary runoffs, if somehow you are not currently registered to vote.)

A list of early voting locations for Harris County for the May 7 election is here and the interactive map is here. Note that fewer locations than usual are available, as this is going to be a low turnout affair, so check to ensure your regular spot is open. I note that the West End Multi-Service Center, on Heights Blvd just south of I-10, which I’ve been using lately as it’s a reasonable bike ride from my house, is not available this time. Check before you head out and save yourself some trouble.

What’s on your ballot for this election? Everyone gets to vote on the two constitutional amendments that were placed on the ballot during the last special session. Prop 2, which increases the homestead exemption from $25K to $40K, is worth a Yes. Prop 1, which approves a property tax cut for elderly and disabled homeowners, is your call. Wherever you are and whatever other races there may be, this one is for all of us to vote on.

In Harris County there is the special election for the remainder of the term in HD147, which is between Jolanda Jones and Danielle Bess. Those two are also in the primary runoff on May 24 – yes, I know, this is weird and confusing – and it really only matters if the same person wins both races. For higher stakes there is the special election in HCC District 2, with four candidates running to replace Rhonda Skillern-Jones. You can listen to the interviews I did with each candidate. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

Also in Harris County, there are several school bond referenda:

In Fort Bend County, there are two races for Fort Bend ISD, in District 3 and District 7. Note that one of the candidates for District 7 is a problem.

In Montgomery County, there are a bunch of special purpose district elections. If you live in Montgomery, check very carefully to see if one of those includes you.

There are undoubtedly plenty of others, but I’ve only got so much space and time. Check your local elections office webpage for further details, and get out there and vote.

Our new school library standards

I am casting a gimlet eye at this, at least for now.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

The Texas Education Agency released statewide standards Monday for how school districts should remove and prevent “obscene content” from entering Texas public school libraries.

In the agency’s model policy, there is an emphasis that parents should have a role in how books are selected. The agency says that districts should make new selections readily available for parents to review. School librarians or staff should be “encouraged” to ask parents what their children can and cannot read.

The new guidelines suggest that school boards have final approval of all new books and that a committee should be put in place to review books if parents file a formal “request for reconsideration.”

To avoid “obscene” content in libraries, the agency reminded school districts that state law spells out that handing out inappropriate materials to minors is a crime. Texas librarians, school administrators and public education advocates have denied allegations that there are “inappropriate” or “pornographic” materials in school libraries or that they’re handing out such content.

The standards are to be used as guidance for school district officials as they develop new procedures or alter their policies for selecting or removing library books. School districts, which are largely independent governmental entities and run by locally elected trustees, are not required to adopt the agency’s recommendations.

The TEA’s new standards come about five months after Gov. Greg Abbott directed that agency, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and State Board of Education to develop such guidelines. In his directive, Abbott cited two memoirs about LGBTQ characters, which include graphic images and descriptions of sex, that were found in some Texas school libraries.

“There have been several instances recently of inappropriate materials being found in school libraries,” TEA commissioner Mike Morath said Monday in a letter to Abbott. “This model local school board policy will serve as a helpful guide to school boards as they create the policies for their school district libraries.”

In his letter Monday, Morath said that his agency worked with the state’s library and archives commission and the SBOE chair to develop the guidelines.

As most school districts have existing policies for how books are selected or removed, it was not immediately clear Monday how this guidance will affect individual school libraries.

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, warned school district officials to be wary of what policies they decide to adopt. Holmes said they should listen to their communities and not to be taken away by the politics surrounding the situation.

“As we have said since these latest book controversies began, elected school boards have for decades had the means to work with educators and parents to determine what library content meets the needs of their local communities,” Holmes said.

I have not read the new standards yet – only so many hours in the day, etc etc etc. Honestly, I’d like to hear what the professionals have to say about them first, because I’m not sufficiently versed in this topic to get all the nuances. I think the library and archives commission is a good faith actor, so there’s a chance this isn’t all that bad. I definitely agree with Shannon Holmes that school districts should be very careful with how they handle this, and take all needed steps to keep the hotheads, censors, and general do-badders at bay. I wish them all the luck in the world with that.

Superintendent House backs off a key piece of his budget plan

Sounds like he heard the concerns.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Wednesday said he would scrap a plan that would have centralized the funding of specific positions and programs, instead asking his administrators to come up with a plan that would let campus principals maintain control over their budgets while requiring they staff key positions and provide critical services.

“I have asked the leadership team to present a revised funding model that will create a more equitable baseline education for all students and maintain HISD’s commitment to campus-based budgeting that meets the specific needs of each unique student population,” House said in a letter to the Houston Independent School District community. “We will set clear expectations and hold each campus accountable for improving educational outcomes and eliminating achievement gaps for all students they serve.”

The letter said schools that have not had the money to invest in those key staff positions will receive additional funding to do so.

“All schools will be expected to provide a baseline education experience to all students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year,” the letter stated.

The development which House called a compromise, was the latest this week after House’s Chief of Schools, Denise Watts, told principals Monday the administration would be “revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy.”

In Wednesday’s letter, House said his decision was the result of hearing from trustees and “many of you.”

See here for the previous update. I’m fine with this, as the main goal of achieving equity is still in there. The details matter as much as before, and we will need to continue talking about how this will be done, what will change, how funding can be ensured, and so on. But this was a good step for the Superintendent to take. The Press has more.

Maybe not so fast on the HISD budget stuff

I’m OK with this.

The Houston Independent School District may reconsider proposed budget changes that would have centralized the funding of certain positions and programs, a top district official told principals Monday.

“Our cabinet team is revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy this week. As a result, we need to pause all budget meetings and your planning based on the previous allocation sheets,” Chief of Schools Denise Watts told principals via e-mail. “It is my hope that we will be able to communicate how to move forward soon. I apologize for any frustration or confusion that this may cause. I appreciate your flexibility and patience.”

[…]

Under the strategic plan, which aims to make the school system more equitable, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the plan calls for the district to centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

During the first workshops about the budget, several trustees had raised concerns about the lack of details they had received about the proposals, the speed at which the proposed changes would occur and how the district planned to pay for the strategic plan, which will be initiated with the help of federal COVID relief money.

“I am happy to hear the district is listening to the feedback,” Trustee Bridget Wade said Monday.

Wade last week tweeted that she was a “no” vote until she saw more research and data guiding the district. “The pause and redirect are a much needed start.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree with Trustee Wade, we need more time and data before we can move forward with this. I’m not making any judgments about Superintendent House’s proposals – as I’ve said, I generally like the goals, but the details very much matter, and so does buy-in from the stakeholders. Big changes need careful handling, and that takes time. I recognize that we can’t take forever, but we should take as much time as is needed, and we should very much listen to the concerns that have already been raised. I am hopeful this will proceed with all due care.

More on the HISD budget plan

Trustees make first contact with the Superintendent’s plans.

More than a month after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II unveiled a strategic plan aimed at making the district more equitable, trustees still have unanswered questions about how to pay for it and concerns about whether parents and community members understand some of the changes that would occur.

Chief among the changes prompting some of those questions is House’s call to centralize funding for certain positions and programs, a shift from the district’s decentralized system that empowers school principals to spend their budgets as they see fit.

Under the plan, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers, in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the district would centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

In interviews and during budget workshops this month, trustees largely have agreed that all campuses should have those staffers and programs but several say they want more information about how the changes will affect principals’ autonomy.

They also want to know how the district will pay for the initiative, which is projected to cost $255 million to implement in the first year of the five-year plan.

[…]

The district plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money and general budget funds to pay for the first year. Funding it in the other years, however, has not yet been discussed in great detail.

“This isn’t the first time that this type of change has been proposed, right? What I would like to see as a trustee is to see there is transparency around the process, that there is community understanding and buy-in,” said Trustee Judith Cruz, currently serving as board president, “and ultimately that there is alignment to the board’s vision and goals.”

Most recently, former Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed centralizing various staffing and budget decisions, but the plan fizzled out after he left the school system in 2018, less than two years into his tenure. His successor, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, said the district needed more outreach before changing its funding model.

The district was expected to create a committee to study resource allocation. It is not clear if it ever did.

Trustee Dani Hernandez asked House during a workshop Thursday if that group ever had been formed and produced any reports. House said he was not aware of any.

“I feel like it’s a lot more of a plan than it previously was,” Hernandez said after last week’s presentation. “I still have a lot of questions about it.”

Administrators have said the change will not be a complete abandonment of the district’s decentralized operations but more of a hybrid model in which principals still will make some budgeting decisions.

Duncan Klussmann, former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said the level of autonomy given to principals that often is associated with HISD could lead to different programming available to students across the district without “guardrails.”

2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board called for structural changes across the district after finding the decentralized model had delivered inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending.

“I think there is a balance that organizations are always looking to,” Klussmann said, “to try to figure out that right balance between campus autonomy and centralization.”

See here and here for the background. The story goes on to quote an expert who has some reservations about the plan and the speed with which it is moving forward. She and a colleague turned those concerns into this op-ed piece calling to slow things down.

Houston’s school board needs to take the time the city deserves to see if consolidating budget power back to the top is the right way to go. As such, we respectfully call for the board to stand up for the community and ensure a full public vetting process. It’s what such a monumental decision warrants before a well-established budget strategy with a lot of wins is ditched in the blink of an eye.

Those wins include the fact that the current model, known as weighted student funding, advances equity. Under the highly transparent model, the district gives schools more dollars for students with higher needs. Peer-reviewed research proves it: in fiscal year 2019, HISD spent $384 per student more on schools attended by the average low-income student than schools attended by other students. The weighted student funding strategy brought student achievement gains that won HISD the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. (The link between implementation and positive student test scores is documented in our research .) And while the district today clearly has ample room to improve, in a district like HISD with very limited dollars, there’s no wiggle room to get it wrong. It is these successes that led the school board to make weighted student funding a cornerstone of district strategy.

The Houston superintendent’s move goes against the tide of dozens of mega-districts that have adopted WSF in recent years — from Atlanta and Denver to Chicago and New York, Memphis-Shelby County and Metro Nashville — each posting equity gains as a result. Most recently, District of Columbia Public Schools approved weighted student funding, swayed by the evidence backing it. And in 2015, the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a pilot program enabling districts to expand their weighted student formulas to include federal funds as well.

We understand that the natural state of many districts is to centralize power over finances. But HISD’s board has long resisted that pressure, choosing instead to run a system that gives principals latitude in how best to staff their schools to meet differing student needs.

[…]

The district need not jettison weighted student funding to mandate that all schools apply an effective reading curriculum or offer fine arts — things that leadership has called for. The district can absolutely require all schools to offer certain programs or services under weighted student funding; principals simply keep the leeway to decide how best to deliver those offerings at their school. It’s the district’s responsibility to then hold principals accountable for outcomes.

So, a centralized funding model does not win more money for schools. It does, however, incur losses. Principals — who know their students and the strengths of their unique mix of staff — lose their flexibility to decide how to tailor their resources to meet the needs of their diverse students. And a proven track record of equity hangs in the balance.

In working with scores of districts through our national school finance research center, we can confidently say that Houston’s rush to change is unprecedented. We have never seen a big-city district so dramatically overhaul its finance model without at least two years of planning. And while the threat of a state takeover continues to hang over HISD, there is no evidence that the Texas Education Agency is demanding this rapid-fire shift.

As I said before, I generally support the goals of Superintendent House’s vision. I’m fine with taking all the time needed to study it and make sure that we’re not disrupting things that are working well or implementing things that don’t have empirical backing yet. I’m out of my depth beyond that, so that’s all the more reason why I’d say taking more time on this is worthwhile.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

HISD’s budget plan

From the op-ed pages, a few words from Superintendent Millard House.

During a listening session at Chavez High School last September, a mother told me in tears that her child had to travel an hour each way to reach a magnet school. When parents and students don’t have options for a great education in their own neighborhood, it should not come as a surprise that Houston ISD has 20,000 fewer students enrolled since the 2016-2017 school year. While the COVID pandemic plays a major role in that number, enrollment had already begun dropping.

We need the trust of everyone in the community to turn things around. And to build that trust, as the superintendent, I must be frank.

When I was hired to lead the Houston Independent School District last summer, I believe I was clear-eyed about the opportunities and challenges I was taking on. If there was one thing that was not clear to me, it was the urgent financial challenges facing our district. Years of poor budgeting practices, unchecked waste and organizational inefficiencies combined with steady declines in enrollment have created a structural deficit that my administration could not have anticipated just a year ago. Now it’s time to do the work and start making the tough calls.

We have assembled a world-class team and built a five-year strategic vision for this district that — if we make hard choices and put students first in our decision-making — will stabilize the district and make it one of the few urban districts in the country that provides every student with an education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for success in life after graduation.

[…]

It is clear there are three things HISD must invest in to stabilize the district:

1. We cannot afford to lose any more students and we must bring new students into the district. Stabilizing and then growing enrollment is the single most important thing we can do to right-size the budget and meet our commitments to the Houston community.

2. We cannot afford to lose more experienced educators. When we lose teachers, kids suffer. We must pay our educators a competitive wage because it’s the right thing to do and HISD will not survive if we don’t.

3. We cannot afford the wasteful spending at the district- or campus-level that has not just created inefficiencies, but also exacerbated inequities across the communities we serve. We must centralize some aspects of school budgets to reduce costs and meet the needs of all children.

See here for more on the strategic plan. There are still a lot of details to be filled in, and of course there needs to be support for both from the community and the HISD Board. I like the overall direction, and I generally agree with the three points outlined above, though decades of “fiscal conservatism” mumbo-jumbo have left indelible scars that flare up in the presence of old saws about cutting waste and finding efficiencies like Harry Potter whenever He Who Must Not Be Named is up to something. We’ll see what the details and the next two budgets look like and go from there. The Press has more.

Students against banning books

I have three things to say about this.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

For high school senior Gabrielle Izu, Texas’ public school book bans feel personal.

The books Texas is targeting — mainly novels that focus on discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity — tell the tale of Izu’s past and future. The 17-year-old high school student is Asian American, Black and Hispanic and bisexual, and she hates to see her identities or her peers’ censored.

“I ignored [my sexuality] for a really long time. And I think that as a young girl, if a book showed me that this is a life that could be lived, I could have had a lot more peace and coming to terms with bisexuality,” said Izu, who attends James E. Taylor High School in the Katy Independent School District near Houston.

Here and there, Texas students are forming their own book clubs to read what adults want banned. Books like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Ashley Hope Perez’s “Out of Darkness” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House.” Books that, until last fall, were easy to find and access.

In Katy ISD, students have distributed hundreds of novels challenged by adults in Texas. They’re getting the books free of charge from a political advocacy organization and publishers. And Leander ISD near Austin, students are coming together in a banned-book club to discuss those books. Some students are starting to attend school board meetings to fight for the freedom to choose what to read.

More than a hundred Katy ISD students of a variety of ages, races and gender identities met after school to discuss the bans and pick up contested novels. Among the books they’re reading is Kalynn Bayron’s “Cinderella is Dead,” a novel that follows a queer, Black teenager’s coming-of-age story. Izu, who saw herself reflected in the book, said her heart broke when Texas schools targeted it for a ban.

“It felt like my identity was seen as dangerous because of the banning of a story like that. What about my story? Am I seen as a bad influence?” Izu said. “Am I seen as something that should be shamed?”

Texas parents and politicians say they are protecting students with book bans. Many students, including Cameron Samuels, a senior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy ISD, aren’t buying it.

“It’s clear that these books address issues of race and LGBTQ identities, and that is the exact reason that certain people are seeking to remove these books from libraries and prohibit students from accessing them,” said Samuels, who helped with distribution efforts. “And these policies have dire consequences for us because they keep us struggling with our queer identities.”

Katy ISD students showed strong support at the events, Samuels said. But not all parents are happy, and some have even tried to enter the school to disturb student discussions on Texas’ book bans, they said.

1. I salute these kids and wish them the best of luck in fighting what is likely to be a long battle. At some point, there is going to be a very heavyhanded response from someone in authority, whether it be a principal, a law enforcement officer, or just some loudmouth (quite possibly an elected official) targeting them online. That will get ugly very quickly, and who knows what happens next. I just hope whoever is that first target has a good support system around them.

2. Whether as a result of that heavyhanded response or not, this fight is going to find its way into the courthouse sooner or later. If there is some litigation going on already, I confess I’ve missed it. But one way or another, some aspects of this will be decided by judges.

3. I hope all these kids will be registering to vote at their first opportunity, and will be sure to vote against everyone who has tried to take their books away from them, from their school board up to their legislators and governor. Let me say this one more time: Nothing is going to change until someone loses an election for their support of banning books.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

HISD lifts its mask mandate

A bit earlier than expected.

The Houston Independent School District will lift its mask mandate Tuesday, no longer requiring the use of face coverings at all facilities and buildings, district officials said Monday.

The change in policy at Houston ISD arrived three days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it measures community spread to account for hospitalizations in addition to caseloads. Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last week lowered the county’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant,” the second-highest possible threat level, while Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted a mandate that required city employees and visitors to municipal buildings to wear masks indoors.

“Masks within HISD schools, facilities, and school buses will become optional,” Superintendent Millard House II said in an e-mail to principals Monday morning. “Please encourage students, staff, and any other HISD stakeholders that may need an additional layer of protection or are exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.”

See here for the official announcement. I was expecting this to come in a couple of weeks, but here we are. My kids have been pretty dedicated mask wearers, so we’ll see what they and their friends do. I hope that we have done what we can to improve air circulation in the schools, and I hope this spurs some people to get their kids vaccinated. And I really really hope we don’t have to change directions again this semester. The Press has more.

HISD may lift the mask mandate after spring break

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD students will get an extra day spring holiday and will complete the last day of the first semester before the winter break next school year under a calendar approved by the board of trustees Thursday.

The board also faced a parade of speakers demanding the district lift its mask mandate. The item, however, was not on the board’s agenda.

Superintendent Millard House II said the district planned to continue following COVID infection and spread data and, if trends hold, may reassess its policies in early March and potentially lift the mask mandate by the time students return to classrooms after spring break.

“When school resumes on March 21, a scenario exists where masks will be optional,” House said. “We can only get there, as we know, if we all pull together and continue our efforts of mitigation that we know work.”

First, my kids (or at least the one who will still be in HISD next year; the other will be off at college) definitely appreciate having the fall semester end at the start of winter break. Neither of them liked having to deal with finals in January. I suspect they are not alone in this.

Second, HISD had previously considered lifting the mandate at the end of 2021, but chose to keep it in place as omicron began surging. The intent was always to review the policy and scale it back or take it down when it made sense to do so. Some other large urban districts have already taken this step. It’s a complex decision, one that needs to balance evidence that masking has some negative effect on kids, especially younger kids, with the reality that even a “milder” form of COVID can still wreak havoc as teachers and support staff get sick and have to isolate. Hopefully the numbers will stay down enough for this to make sense, and if we’re really lucky maybe we’ll get a longer lull before (sigh) another variant comes along. Here’s hoping for the best.

Have I mentioned that we need to get more kids vaccinated?

Seriously, y’all.

Since November, 693,345 Texas elementary-age children have received at least one dose of the vaccine, accounting for about 24% of the state’s 2.9 million children ages 5-11 — and a figure in line with the national rate. Nearly 390,000 of the 5-11 group are fully vaccinated, while more than half of Texans ages 12-15 are fully vaccinated.

Texas’ child vaccination rate is higher than in many other Southern states, where rates as low as 10% are being recorded. In the first two weeks after the shot was approved for emergency use in the younger age group, some 100,000 children showed up to Texas school clinics, pharmacies and pediatricians’ offices to get inoculated.

[…]

At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, positive cases among patients went from zero in early December to some 70 patients with COVID-19 a month later, mostly among unvaccinated children, said Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief for the hospital. Their hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 broke all previous pandemic records, and at breakneck speed, he said. Just weeks after omicron was first detected in Texas, it was causing more than 90% of new cases showing up at his hospital — less than a month after the vaccine was approved for young kids.

“We have staggering numbers here during this omicron surge,” Versalovic said in a news conference in early January.

That same day, the state broke its own record of children hospitalized with COVID-19, reporting 350 — five more than the previous peak a few months before.

On Friday, the state health department released data on 3.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas in the first two years of the pandemic. Almost 19% of them — 722,393 — were diagnosed in residents under age 20. The demographics do not include cases reported in 2022.

During the first week of January, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Education Agency reported that about 26,500 students and 11,800 staff members had been infected with COVID, according to data released Friday.

While the numbers of student cases are nearing levels not seen since the start of school last fall, there are more cases of COVID-19 among staffers than at any other time in the pandemic. The numbers are likely to increase as more districts report their numbers to the state. The current numbers include only about half of all of the state’s 1,200 districts, and the number of districts reporting any numbers is inconsistent from week to week.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the state reported 471 children in Texas hospitals with COVID-19. Most of them are unvaccinated, hospital officials have said. But there is no state data detailing how many COVID-19 child patients are in Texas pediatric intensive care units.

Yes, I’ve said this before. The numbers have climbed a bit since then, but there’s so much farther to go. As was the case with previous iterations of the vaccine, there was a large initial burst of activity, as the folks who had been eagerly awaiting the day that it became available for that group rushed out to get it, then it leveled off. The difference is that this time that initial burst was much smaller. Gotta say, I have no idea why. Get your kids vaccinated. What are you waiting for?

Back to school

Sort of.

Roughly one-quarter of Houston ISD students were absent Monday, the first day back following the district’s winter break, according to the district.

District officials released figures Tuesday that showed 45,515 students were absent on Monday and 26,259 on Tuesday, resulting in attendance rates of 76 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The district’s average daily attendance was 95 percent in the 2018-19 school year, the latest figures available from the Texas Education Agency.

While the data did not include reasons why students missed school, the absences offered a clue about the potential impact of the COVID-19 omicron variant surge on schools as they resumed instruction following breaks in the Houston region.

One possible reason for the high absenteeism on Monday: At least in my house, we all thought school didn’t start until Tuesday the 4th. Most years, the first Monday in January is a teacher in-service day, so schools are open but not for students. That was not the case this year, and it wasn’t until we saw an email from the Superintendent on Friday that we realized our error. I would not be surprised if some number of families had made travel plans that didn’t have them back in town until Monday. Obviously, COVID diagnoses and exposure and plain old fear played a role as well, but the difference between Monday and Tuesday is big enough that I think failure to understand the schedule was a factor. Just a thought.

Now that we’re a week into the school year, my kids, at two different HISD high schools, did not say anything about having a lot of substitute teachers or empty classrooms or anything like that. HISD does still have its mask mandate, so maybe that has allayed some fears, I don’t know. The younger kid has finals next week, so I am hoping for as much normality as the fates will grant us. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note:

Houston Independent School District is calling on students and alumni for help to address the loss of learning its elementary students suffered due to challenges from the pandemic.

The district announced Wednesday that it is hiring 500 HISD students and alumni for spring semester tutoring positions at elementary schools throughout the district. The district is seeking students ages 15 and up and alumni currently in college for the position which pays $12 an hour, according to a release.

[…]

Student tutors will work in-person with shifts available during the school day, after school and on Saturdays, according to the release, and will be paired with a certified teacher for up to 20 hours a week to help third to fifth-grade students with core subjects like English, Math and Science.

The program begins in January and runs through the end of June, according to the release. Those interested should apply by Jan. 12 at apply.ieducateusa.org. No experience is required and the district welcomes all majors.

The HISD press release is here. Go check this out if you’re interested.

Back to school, kids

It’ll probably be fine. And honestly, there’s no appetite for anything else.

Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.

The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.

At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”

Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.

Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”

In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.

In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.

“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.

She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.

HISD’s mask mandate has been a big success, though it hasn’t really been tested by omicron yet. If people are properly wearing appropriate masks, they can protect themselves pretty well. Better ventilation and doing whatever possible outside is helpful. I’d feel a lot better if a whole lot more kids were getting vaccinated, but maybe getting them back into schools will nudge a few more in that direction. Some universities have pushed back the start of in person classes for their spring semester in favor of online learning, but I just don’t see that as viable for the independent school districts, at least not at this time. Mask, ventilate, vax, test, and isolate as needed, and we can get through this. I’m hoping for the best.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.

HISD will keep its mask mandate

This is in response to that recent Fifth Circuit ruling about mask mandates in schools and whether Greg Abbott’s ban on them violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Houston Independent School District will keep its mask mandate in place, district officials said Thursday, despite a federal appeals court ruling halting an injunction on Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting such requirements.

“The ruling does not impact the requirement that students, staff, and visitors must wear masks while on HISD property. This mandate remains in place for HISD schools,” the district said in a statement. “While we are heartened that we have maintained the lowest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the state and vaccinations are now available for our youngest students, HISD’s mask mandate will remain in place for students, staff, and visitors in all HISD schools, buildings, and buses regardless of vaccination status.”

HISD plans to review the mandate at the end of its semester after the holidays, Superintendent Millard House II said last month.

House implemented HISD’s mandate shortly before the start of the school year and the board of trustees voted to express support for it.

The district, by and large, has avoided significant backlash from individuals opposing the mandate, outside of a handful of parents who have addressed House and trustees at board meetings and during a recent series of community forums.

The district’s statement noted that HISD and other districts sued over the governor’s order in state district court. The lawsuit, it said, is based on state law regarding the authority of Texas school districts to make health and safety decisions for their students. It remains in litigation.

See here for more on the Fifth Circuit ruling. As noted, Superintendent House did say that HISD would consider lifting its mask mandate after the holidays if conditions continue to improve; who knows what will happen now that the omicron variant is out there. The federal lawsuit really didn’t have much bearing on HISD anyway, since they were among the plaintiffs that had sued Abbott in state court over his mandate ban, and won an injunction that as far as I know is still in place; besides, Abbott and Paxton don’t have any authority to enforce it anyway. The district and the Superintendent are doing the right thing. Keep on keeping on. The Press has more.

Fifth Circuit puts school mask order on hold

This effing court.

A federal appeals court has reinstated Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates as it weighs a federal judge’s ruling that the ban violates the rights of disabled students.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel previously ruled that the order violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the American Rescue Plan, which gives discretion to school districts to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on the virus. Yeakel, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, had banned state Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing the order, including suing school districts that required masks.

Texas appealed the judge’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, a court composed mostly of judges appointed by Republican presidents that has historically trended conservative in its legal decisions. Wednesday’s decision was made by a three-judge panel, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

The lawsuit was brought by Disabled Rights Texas on behalf of a number of children with disabilities in Texas. Lawyers for those children argued the law banning mask mandates goes against CDC advice and that it doesn’t allow schools to consider mask mandates as an accommodation for kids with disabilities who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They argued that it violates the ADA, which requires equal access to public goods for people with and without disabilities.

See here for the background. Other than the Bloomberg News story linked in the Chron piece, which says that the order was made by the court without any explanation, I can’t find any coverage of this, so this is what we know. But honestly, how much more do we need to know? As with the SB8 case and the detailed ruling given by the district court judge, the Fifth Circuit exists to enforce a partisan orthodoxy on whatever comes before it. When was the last time the state of Texas went running to them to ask for a stay on a ruling they didn’t like and got a No answer? All of the things that reformers want to do to the Supreme Court need to be done with even more urgency to this abomination.

HISD will consider lifting its mask mandate

After the holidays, depending on how things go.

Houston ISD will consider changing its mask mandate policy after the winter break in the wake of expanded vaccine eligibility for youngsters and improving pandemic conditions in the city, Superintendent Millard House II said Monday.

House noted there have been spikes of COVID-19 infections following holidays since the pandemic began and said he would like to get through the winter holidays before deciding whether to lift the face-covering rule.

The district will seek feedback from the community about whether it should modify its mandate before making a decision, he said.

“We would like to get through the holidays and then we will come back from the holidays and consider what the data is telling us at that particular point,” House said. “And if we are continuing to push forward in the right direction — like we are heading right now — there will be consideration around, you know, not making the mask mandate mandated.”

[…]

Earlier this month, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reduced the threat level of COVID from “severe” to “significant” due to a decrease in new cases and hospitalizations. She encouraged unvaccinated persons to avoid gatherings, wear a mask and get a vaccine while asking those fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors due to significant transmission.

The Texas Medical Center reported 43 new hospitalizations on Sunday. Approximately 56.7 percent of the county’s population is considered fully vaccinated, per county data; that reflects nearly 69 percent of population aged 12 and older who are eligible for the vaccine. Across Texas, 54 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Dr. Omar Matuk-Villazon, a pediatrician and Chief Medical Officer at the UH College of Medicine, said he has heard from children who are excited to get a shot because they see it as a way to get rid of masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools, but he said discussing paths to getting rid of mandates is a worthwhile conversation.

“Let’s have every kid who wants to be protected get protected and then let’s decide after that,” Matuk-Villazon said. “We may lose public health care trust. … We need to have a plan.”

At HISD, House has repeated since implementing the mandate less than two weeks before a full return to in-person instruction in August that it could be changed, depending on the circumstances of the pandemic. During recent town halls, he told some parents who asked him to consider changing it that it was his hope to, when the time is right.

Since the start of school, the district of nearly 195,000 students, has logged 3,569 cumulative cases among kids and 496 among staffers. As of Monday, it reported 241 active cases, 213 of which were students and 28 staffers.

As the story notes, some area districts have already lifted their mask mandates, while others haven’t made any plans to do away with theirs. HISD is also partnering with the Houston Health Department to provide vaccines for children ages 5 and up at select schools. I’m basically fine with this plan, and if you’ve listened to any of my HISD candidate interviews, you know this combination of “more vaccinations plus a sufficiently low case rate” was the consensus view for when the mask mandate should be eased up. I don’t think we need to be in any rush, so waiting to see if there are any post-holiday spikes is a good idea.

HISD really has done a good job of keeping everyone safe so far this semester. I can tell you, the number of calls and emails I’ve gotten about confirmed cases at my kids’ schools is far less than it was last spring. We should want to get to a point where it’s safe to let people go maskless. I hope this means that the vax rate among HISD teachers and staffers is sufficiently high to pursue this, and I would be very happy for them to continue to enforce masking among those who aren’t vaxxed. They’re the risky ones, after all. In the meantime, let’s set this goal, and then work to make it reachable. It’s worth doing.

It’s mostly about the gay books

Color me not surprised.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

While a Texas House committee chairman’s inquiry into schoolbooks has often been linked to new state laws limiting how teachers address slavery and racism, most of the literature he’s called into question deals with a wholly different subject: LGBTQ issues.

That has also been the focus of Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent demands of the Texas Education Agency to work with other statewide agencies to set standards to prevent schoolchildren from exposure to what he’s defined as “pornography or other inappropriate content” and to investigate any possible related crimes. The books that prompted such labels and backlash from parents at a handful of Texas school districts are written by LGBT authors and discuss LGBT identity and relationships.

Democrats have denounced the Republican efforts as politically motivated attacks meant to gin up support from their base that they say will ultimately result in censorship and harm students, especially those who are already marginalized.

It’s part of a trend of conservative-led fights across the country over how schools can teach about issues of race, particularly systemic racism, as well as sex and gender, blurring the already faint line between local and national politics.

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, had given the districts until Friday to respond to his inquiry. Several reached by Hearst Newspapers — including Katy and Fort Bend in the Houston area and Northside and Spring Branch in the San Antonio area — said Thursday that they were still reviewing the request and/or did not expect to make the deadline.

The letter had asked districts whether they carried any books on a list of about 850 that included Pulitzer Prize winners and other acclaimed literature.

Krause, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment, has said the purpose of his request is to verify that the districts are in compliance with new laws passed this year.

[…]

Danika Ellis, who runs The Lesbrary, a blog about lesbian and bisexual books, reviewed the list of titles Krause ran by school districts. She found — as a Hearst Newspapers analysis also concluded — that more than 60 percent of the books had to do with matters related to LGBT topics. About 20 percent touched on transgender issues or featured a transgender character. At least 9 percent related to sex education.

That’s compared with just about 8 percent that relate to race and racism. The rest of the books were not as easily categorized but related to topics such as teen pregnancy, abortion, contraception, sexual assault and sexually transmitted diseases.

“This house bill is supposed to prevent ‘discomfort,’ but what about the discomfort of kids who experience racism or who never see themselves represented in the curriculum or the books on the shelves?” Ellis wrote on her blog. “What about the discomfort of queer kids who see that even mentioning people like them is categorized as inappropriate or obscene or even ‘pornography’?”

HB1525 was primarily meant to make adjustments to the major school finance bill, HB3, passed in 2019. But a last-minute amendment by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, inserted language that required school boards to develop a policy for the adoption of human sexuality curriculum and set new guidelines for boards to follow in approving the curriculum.

They now have to take into account the advice of local school health advisory councils, parent groups appointed by school boards that give recommendations. They also were already required to ensure any approved materials were “suitable for the subject and grade level for which the curriculum materials are intended” and “reviewed by academic experts.”

Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who co-authored the bill and chairs the Texas House LGBT Caucus, said it “never had the breadth” that Krause is claiming it has.

“The SHAC was put into a school finance bill to continue to target sex education when we know research tells us the opposite: that medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education is really important to holistic development,” González said. “However, what Rep. Krause has been trying to do over the last few weeks is beyond sex education and beyond the SHAC’s work, and he is primarily doing this not out of concern for children but out of political advantage for his own attorney general race.”

See here and here for the background. As of Friday afternoon, Austin and Dallas ISDs had said they will not respond to Krause’s request; it’s my hope that more ISDs, including Houston, will follow suit. The Trib has two more stories about this publicity/campaign stunt by Krause, which you can read as you see fit. I hate giving the little twerp any more attention for this, but ignoring it doesn’t seem right, either.

Some years ago, I was having a discussion with a friend about then-Mayor Annise Parker’s victory in the 2009 election over Gene Locke. I was trying to figure out why Parker did better in the Republican City Council districts than Locke did, given that Locke had made some effort to woo Republican voters. My friend’s response was “they’re more racist than they are homophobic”, which I still think about from time to time. From the vantage point of today, maybe that’s not so clear anymore.

Federal judge blocks Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates

Excellent news.

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules.

The order comes after a monthslong legal dispute between parents, a disability rights organization and Texas officials over whether the state was violating the 1990 law, known as the ADA, by not allowing school districts to require masks. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel barred Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing Abbott’s order.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Yeakel said. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”

The judge said the governor’s order impedes children with disabilities from the benefits of public schools’ programs, services and activities to which they are entitled.

The advocacy group, Disability Rights Texas, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texan families in late August against Abbott, Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. It states that the governor’s order and the TEA’s enforcement of it deny children with disabilities access to public education as they are at high risk of illness and death from the virus.

Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said in a statement that the court found that Texas is not above federal law and state officials cannot prevent school districts from providing accommodations to students who are especially vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19.

“No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won’t have to,” Rogers said.

Rogers said she doesn’t rule out the state appealing the decision in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because the state has done so before, most recently with its new law that bans abortions after as early as six weeks.

[…]

In court documents, Ryan Kercher, the attorney representing the state, argued that neither the attorney general nor the state education agency were enforcing the executive order so they couldn’t be sued.

But Disability Rights Texas attorneys said the three were enforcing the order and provided the court with a letter that the TEA sent to the attorney general’s office. In it, the education agency listed school districts that appeared to be operating in violation of the governor’s order. The plaintiffs also noted how Paxton sued several school districts over requiring masks and sent “threatening” letters to districts telling them that they were violating the order.

This isn’t the first time state attorneys argued that Paxton and Abbott didn’t actually enforce the law. In an August lawsuit against the state over the mask order, Paxton made the same argument and indicated that it was up to local county prosecutors to enforce the order.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of Judge Yeakel’s ruling. As the story notes, the US Department of Education is also doing an investigation into Texas’ mask mandate ban; it’s not clear to me what effect this ruling, if it stands, could have on that. Also as the story notes, Paxton had filed multiple lawsuits against school districts that had mask mandates, getting most if not all of them to stop. We’ll see what happens next with that.

I do expect the state to appeal to the Fifth Circuit, and why wouldn’t they? The Fifth Circuit gives them everything they ask for pretty much all of the time, whatever the facts or merits of the case in question. This is still a significant ruling, and we should always take the opportunity to revel in any defeat suffered by Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton. May this be the start of a very long losing streak. The DMN and the Chron have more.

Let’s have us a book burning!

That’s where we’re headed.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

Gov. Greg Abbott told the Texas Education Agency on Wednesday 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.”

It’s unclear why Abbott tasked the TEA to perform the investigation and not the state’s policing arm. The TEA does not employ law enforcement officers, according to state statute, and a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement confirmed Wednesday that the education agency does not have any licensed peace officers.

Abbott’s request comes two days after he 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.

“While those standards are developed, Abbott wrote to the TEA in his letter Wednesday, “more immediate action is needed to protect Texas students” against that inappropriate content, which he said is “a clear violation” of state law.

[…]

Any civilian can also go to a prosecutor directly to provide what they consider evidence of a crime, but in most instances the prosecutors would then refer the case to a law enforcement agency to investigate independently before pursuing any legal action, according to Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

As for who could be prosecuted under the investigation that Abbott requested, Edmonds said it depends.

Under the state’s penal code, a person commits a crime if they knowingly exhibit or distribute harmful material to a minor, or display it in a reckless way where a minor is present. Harmful sexual material is defined as “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors.” Most violations under that statute are a Class A misdemeanor, which can result in up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000.

However, the penal code also states that a defense against prosecution is that the material was exhibited by a person “having scientific, educational, governmental, or other similar justification.”

“That’s going to be where the battle may be,” Edmonds said.

You will, I’m sure, be shocked to learn that the two books Abbott initially complained about both had LGBTQ themes and content. It’s just a matter of time before Ken Paxton launches a full-fledged investigation into library crimes, as one of the idiot Republican legislators from Tarrant County is asking for; Paxton has some catching up to do on this front, and you know he never misses a chance to run in front of a parade. And if you think I’m going overboard with the title of this post, well, you have some catching up to do, too. Now please, give me your hottest take about “cancel culture”. I can’t wait to hear it.

(The Bloom County strip embedded above can be seen in full, with a bit of historical context, here.)

NAACP tells athletes to steer clear of Texas

At least someone is willing to take a stand.

The NAACP is urging professional athletes who are free agents to boycott Texas over recent restrictive voting and abortion laws as well as policies stopping local governments from enacting coronavirus containment measures, all of which the civil rights organization says “isn’t safe for anyone.”

“From abortion to voting rights and mask mandates, Texas has become a blueprint by legislators to violate constitutional rights for all, especially for women, children and marginalized communities,” wrote NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson in a letter to all major players’ associations.

The letter specifically called out the GOP elections bill that Gov. Greg Abbott signed last month; the virtual ban on abortions Abbott signed in May that’s being challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court; and Abbott’s executive orders blocking school districts from enforcing mask mandates.

“Texas lawmakers have destroyed the state’s moral compass by passing these laws. In return, we are asking that you seek employment with sports teams located in states that will protect, honor and serve your families with integrity,” Johnson wrote in the letter to the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB and NHL Players’ Associations.

You can see the letter here. On the one hand, we’re going to need as many people who oppose these things as we can get if we want to be able to vote these bastards out, and anyone who might heed this warning would presumably be on our side for that. On the other hand, people have to do what’s best for themselves and their families. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to have to deal with this crap when they have other, better choices available to them. So thank you to the NAACP for calling attention to these issues. I’m still waiting for the NCAA to do its part.

The culture wars always come for the school boards

Everything old is new again.

Across Texas this year, school board meetings have burst into heated ideological fights over mask mandates, vaccines, and lessons on racism labeled as “critical race theory,” bringing a new level of rancor to volunteer boards chosen in nonpartisan elections.

Just north of Houston, Ginger Russell took a turn at the mic in July at a Conroe ISD school board meeting. Before she started on her speech, she said it “wouldn’t be loving to you” to not tell the previous speaker he was living in sin as a gay person.

She turned from there to critical race theory, saying the superintendent was lying when he denied that the district teaches it. She described the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as “Marxism.”

Russell is not a parent of a child in the district. She homeschooled her two daughters years earlier. A right-leaning Montgomery County online publication that has has promoted her speeches at Conroe ISD meetings throughout this year described Russell as “a conservative Republican political leader.”

In late August, high emotions were in evidence when trustees of the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District in northeast San Antonio met to decide whether masks should be mandatory or optional in schools.

As they debated, trustees were heckled by members of the audience, some of whom were removed by security officers after ignoring warnings not to interrupt the discussion.

“I think we’ve lost some civility here. This has become so contentious and so polarizing in this district, it’s crazy,” said trustee Robert Westbrook, who joined a 6-1 majority that voted to make masks optional.

[…]

“We certainly have seen the board room becoming kind of the center of the culture wars, right?” said Dax Gonzalez, spokesperson for the Texas Association of School Boards. “Really just a lot of really hyperbolic discussion, not even discussion just hyperbolic accusations and statements are being made. What’s funny is that behavior we wouldn’t tolerate in the classroom is now happening in the board room.”

The newfound politicization and hostility of school boards seems to be an extension of heightened polarization over the last decade in the federal government and state governments. Even on a personal level, recent research suggests Americans are more unwilling than in the past to date those who do not share their political beliefs.

National groups such as the 1776 Project are raising money to organize conservatives against lessons labeled as critical race theory in school districts, and Turning Point USA is maintaining a “school board watchlist” to fight against “leftist indoctrination.” Included on the list are Forth Worth and Houston ISDs.

Across Texas, conservative Facebook groups and blogs are cropping up for school board issues. Local parties have weighed in, such as when the Travis County GOP accused Round Rock ISD of violating the Open Meetings Act after a contentious board meeting. And in El Paso, local groups have paid for activists to travel around to different board meetings to speak out against critical race theory, often in vitriolic and angry terms, Spectrum News reported.

Conservative activists have been targeting school boards, for electoral takeover and other chaos, since at least the 70s and probably well before that. I’m old enough to have attended a talk by some progressive activist speaker in the 90s about the conservative “stealth” candidates running for and winning school board seats around the country, as part of a larger effort to build a bench for higher offices. I’m not trying to dismiss or minimize any of this, just noting that it’s a tale as old as time. The particulars of what is being shouted about this time are different, and the threats of violence are more credible and fearsome (mostly because there are so many more guns out there), but the basics are the same. I think the best things we can do in response are take the threats seriously and support efforts to hold miscreants accountable, and to be engaged with and participate in every election. We still have the electoral advantage in a lot of these places, we need to make sure we use it.

Here comes the library police

Hide your children, and your copies of forbidden books.

Warning: This book may warp tiny, fragile minds

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.

[…]

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.’”

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.

I mean, this is obviously one part “critical race theory” bullshit, and one part Matt Krause jumping up and down and shouting “Look at me! I’m some guy you’ve never heard of but I’m running for Attorney General so please please please pay attention to me!” I’m sure that the seething masses of the Republican primary electorate, the most delicate and catered-group group of snowflakes that ever demanded special treatment, will be glad to hear it, if they ever do hear of it. In the meantime, school officials can add one more task to their ever-growing list of Shit I Don’t Need To Be Doing Right Now. God bless Texas.

Superintendent House’s listening tour

I like what he’s been doing.

During his first week as Houston ISD’s superintendent in July, Millard House II said he welcomed feedback from everyone, especially those who long have been left out of important discussions.

He has been receiving a steady stream of feedback on small comment cards and at microphones at a series of town hall meetings.

Residents, employees and parents have complained to the leader of the state’s largest school district about campuses that have been neglected, asked him about how he plans to address issues, both new and old, and have urged him to prioritize children.

Specifically, House has heard about transportation woes exacerbated by a driver shortage, the district’s struggles to appropriately educate students with special needs, the neglect of school libraries and unequal access to resources and funding across the district.

The issues have been brought to House’s attention at a series of town halls he hosted in recent weeks.

The discussions are expected to inform conversations about his first strategic plan for HISD as its superintendent. In a brief interview, House said the gatherings were just the first step in collecting information for the plan, the first draft of which he hopes to have ready in the next couple months.

As speakers lined up at microphones, House cautioned audiences he still was new to the role and did not know everything.

“I am just over the 60-day mark, so I am not going to have answers for you this evening,” he said Wednesday at Booker T. Washington High School. “My purpose in being here is to hear you and then to infuse what you are providing to me as a superintendent and let you hold me accountable when it is all said and done.”

At each meeting, House emphasized the strategic plan will not be his or the Board of Education’s but “our” plan.

From the rest of the story, he seems to be doing a good job hearing what people are telling him and taking action, often getting the person asking the question involved in the solution. Each of the HISD trustees and candidates I’ve interviewed so far has had positive things to say about Superintendent House. It’s early, and whatever plan he comes up with to deal with things like special ed and improving underperforming schools and more equitably distributing HISD resources will surely have its share of critics. But he seems to be going about this the right way, and of course we all want him to succeed. There’s a lot on the line here, and we have no time to lose.

The poisoned fruit of the anti-Critical Race Theory tree

Pass stupid, racist laws, get stupid, racist outcomes.

A top administrator with the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake advised teachers last week that if they have a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they should also offer students access to a book from an “opposing” perspective, according to an audio recording obtained by NBC News.

Gina Peddy, the Carroll school district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, made the comment Friday afternoon during a training session on which books teachers can have in classroom libraries. The training came four days after the Carroll school board, responding to a parent’s complaint, voted to reprimand a fourth grade teacher who had kept an anti-racism book in her classroom.

A Carroll staff member secretly recorded the Friday training and shared the audio with NBC News.

“Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979,” Peddy said in the recording, referring to a new Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,” Peddy continued, “that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”

“How do you oppose the Holocaust?” one teacher said in response.

“Believe me,” Peddy said. “That’s come up.”

Another teacher wondered aloud if she would have to pull down “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, or other historical novels that tell the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of victims. It’s not clear if Peddy heard the question in the commotion or if she answered.

Peddy did not respond to messages requesting comment. In a written response to a question about Peddy’s remarks, Carroll spokeswoman Karen Fitzgerald said the district is trying to help teachers comply with the new state law and an updated version that will go into effect in December, Texas Senate Bill 3.

“Our district recognizes that all Texas teachers are in a precarious position with the latest legal requirements,” Fitzgerald wrote, noting that the district’s interpretation of the new Texas law requires teachers to provide balanced perspectives not just during classroom instruction, but in the books that are available to students in class during free time. “Our purpose is to support our teachers in ensuring they have all of the professional development, resources and materials needed. Our district has not and will not mandate books be removed nor will we mandate that classroom libraries be unavailable.”

[…]

The debate in Southlake over which books should be allowed in schools is part of a broader national movement led by parents opposed to lessons on racism, history and LGBTQ issues that some conservatives have falsely branded as critical race theory. A group of Southlake parents has been fighting for more than a year to block new diversity and inclusion programs at Carroll, one of the top-ranked school districts in Texas.

Late last year, one of those parents complained when her daughter brought home a copy of “This Book Is Anti-Racist” by Tiffany Jewell from her fourth grade teacher’s class library. The mother also complained about how the teacher responded to her concerns.

Carroll administrators investigated and decided against disciplining the teacher. But last week, on Oct. 4, the Carroll school board voted 3-2 to overturn the district’s decision and formally reprimanded the teacher, setting off unease among Carroll teachers who said they fear the board won’t protect them if a parent complains about a book in their class.

Teachers grew more concerned last Thursday, Oct. 7, when Carroll administrators sent an email directing them to close their classroom libraries “until they can be vetted by the teacher.” Another email sent to teachers that day included a rubric that asked them to grade books based on whether they provide multiple perspectives and to set aside any that present singular, dominant narratives “in such a way that it … may be considered offensive.”

You can click over to see that rubric for what books are “good” and “bad”; it’s every bit as ridiculous and impenetrable as you think. It’s grimly amusing to see Republican legislators defend their stupid bill, in the story and on Twitter. They’re out there pleading “this isn’t what the bill says”, but what they really mean is “just teach what we agree with or else”. That was clear from the beginning, and the backtracking now is just to deflect blame.

The Trib came in a couple of days later with more on this.

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.

[…]

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.”

[…]

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.”

I agree, it’s just the beginning. I would point out that bills like this were in response to things like the 1619 Project, which was all about correcting historical fictions and untruths, and yet would very much get any teacher who used it in a classroom in trouble. That’s the whole reason for these laws. I guarantee we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of thing, especially in wealthy and historically conservative but now changing suburbs like Southlake and Katy, and it will be every bit as stupid and alienating and racist each time. If it hasn’t happened at a school near you yet, just wait. Slate has more.

Federal lawsuit over mask mandate ban in schools has its hearing

A big case with potential national implications.

School district leaders should have the right to make decisions about mask mandates based on the needs of their students and local coronavirus spread data, attorneys argued Wednesday in federal court.

Lawyers with Disability Rights Texas, who filed the first federal lawsuit over the ban in mid-August, allege that Gov. Greg Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates puts students with disabilities at risk.

The organization claims that Abbott’s executive order violates federal anti-discrimination law, which prohibits the exclusion of students with disabilities from public education programs and activities.

Disability Rights Texas represents students mostly younger than 12 with disabilities and underlying medical conditions “which carry an increased risk of serious complications or death in the event that they contract COVID-19″ including children who have Down syndrome, moderate to severe asthma, and chronic lung or heart conditions.

“Doctors that treat the plaintiffs told them to avoid places without universal masking,” attorney Scott Thomas said.

Their parents submitted testimony outlining their difficult choices about whether to prioritize their vulnerable children’s educational needs or their health.

“No parent should be forced to make a decision like this,” one said.

Ryan Kercher, arguing on behalf of the state, stressed that the lawsuit hinged on data, pointing to the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in the schools of the students suing.

Judge Lee Yeakel interrupted Kercher, asking why the data mattered. If the odds of contracting COVID-19 were 10,000-1, it would matter to the one person, he said.

Kercher pushed back, saying it is important to examine the number of cases to see if a real risk existed should masks not be mandated. Holding up Fort Bend Independent School District, which does not require masks, as an example, Kercher said the district near Houston had case totals that are on par with districts that do not require masks.

But Yeakel also questioned why not search for the most safe option to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“That’s not a choice anyone gets,” Kercher said, noting that the speed limit isn’t 5 miles per hour everywhere. He and his co-counsel did not wear face coverings during the hearing.

Yeakel did not rule on the case Wednesday but said he would work to do so as quickly as possible. He alluded to the national interest and impact such a decision could have as states across the country are also in the midst of their own mask battles. No matter what he decides, appeals appear likely.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Justice Department got involved in the case on the side of the plaintiffs earlier this week. I think they have a strong case, and of course I’m rooting for Greg Abbott to be handed a loss, but we’ll see. I do think this one will eventually make its way to SCOTUS, perhaps quickly if there’s a question about staying a favorable ruling for the plaintiffs. KVUE has more.

Justice Department gets involved in federal lawsuit over mask mandate ban

Missed this over the weekend.

The Justice Department signaled its support on Wednesday for the families of children with disabilities in Texas who are suing to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in the state’s schools.

The department filed a formal statement on Wednesday with the federal district court in Austin that is hearing one of the lawsuits, saying that the ban violates the rights of students with disabilities if it prevents the students from safely attending public schools in person, “even if their local school districts offered them the option of virtual learning.”

The move signals a willingness by the federal government to intervene in states where governors and other policymakers have opposed mask mandates, using federal anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Justice Department has often used similar statements of interest to step in to cases involving civil rights.

“Frankly I’m thrilled,” said Juliana Longoria, 38, of San Antonio. Her daughter, Juliana Ramirez, 8, is one of the plaintiffs in a suit against the ban filed in August by the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas. “It gives me a lot more hope that the federal government is serious about protecting our children,” Ms. Longoria said.

[…]

Dustin Rynders, a lawyer for Disability Rights Texas, said the department’s position put schools in Texas and beyond on notice that they had an obligation to accommodate people with disabilities, including through the wearing of masks.

“It would be discrimination for a state to prohibit ramps to enter in the school,” Mr. Rynders said. “And for many of our clients, people wearing masks to protect our clients’ health is what is required for our clients to be able to safely enter the school.”

Because masks are not required at her school, Juliana Graves, 7, has not been back to school in Sugar Land this year, according to her mother, Ricki Graves. The Lamar Consolidated Independent School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Juliana has had a heart transplant, and the medication she takes to prevent rejection suppresses her immune system, her mother said. As a result, respiratory infections as simple as the common cold have landed Juliana in the hospital more than a dozen times, Ms. Graves said, adding that she worries that Covid-19 could kill her daughter.

Instead of going to school, Juliana has been receiving four hours a week of instruction from a teacher through homebound school services, Ms. Graves said. Her daughter is repeating first grade, she said, and might now be falling even further behind.

“She’s missing all her social interaction, she’s not able to go to school in person and be with her teachers and have recess and go to lunch,” Ms. Graves said. “It’s hard for her.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The story says that a hearing for the lawsuit is scheduled for this week, but I couldn’t find what the date of that hearing is, so I guess I’ll know when I see a story about that. I would like to think that an injunction barring Abbott from banning mask mandates would be in the offing, but I think a narrower ruling that would require schools that have a student that meets some definition of “disabled” to have a mandate is more likely. But I Am Not A Lawyer, so what do I know? ABC News and the Trib have more.