Political battleground emerging in Texas schools over books on racism, sexual orientation

Governor Greg Abbott’s letter this week raising alarms about the content in school libraries is not the first and likely won’t be the last.

Experts say increasing scrutiny on what’s taught in schools has become a political tool in recent elections and will be in future ones.

The governor’s letter comes weeks after Texas Rep. Matt Krause (R - Fort Worth), who chairs the House General Investigating Committee, sent state and local school officials a list of more than 800 books wanting to know if they had them. Many of those books were written by women, people of color and LGBTQ writers covering topics like race, gender identity and sexual orientation.

In the letter sent to the Texas Association of School Boards, Abbott warned about examples of pornographic images in public school libraries.

The governor wrote: "You have an obligation to Texas parents and students to ensure that no child in Texas is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content while inside a Texas public school."

school library books shelf

STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT - AUGUST 31: Bookshelves of library books stand reflected in the media center of the Newfield Elementary School on August 31, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. The school library, like many around the U.S., will be largely closed t

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The letter provided no examples, but his office pointed out one.

Keller ISD recently removed the book "Gender Queer: a Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, pending an investigation. The book is an author’s personal story of gender identity and sexuality.

Keller ISD says it removed the one copy at a high school "once the district was made aware that the book contained what could be regarded as graphic images, out of an abundance of caution."

The governor’s office gave no other examples and did not respond to a request for an interview.

State Sen. Royce West (D - Dallas) sent the governor a letter on Tuesday requesting a list of books causing concern and the reasoning behind the concern.

"That's the best thing to do. So you won't have a chilling effect not only on teachers, but also, frankly, parents and students," West said. "Just don't make a generalized statement. Give us some specificity in terms of why you object to the books."

Jonathan Friedman is with PEN America, an organization that fights for freedom of expression around the world.

"What we're seeing right now is kind of a spreading effort to remove books from schools and school libraries in particular that touch on issues of race, racism, gender, sex and sexual assault in some cases," he said. "We want to make sure that parents have some say in these processes, but we also want to make sure that we are respecting professional educators’ expertise and experience. They have taught, in most cases, many generations of students."

Wherever people stand on the discussion, it’s clear it’s becoming a top political priority — especially for Republicans heading into the 2022 midterms.

"We saw just in the governor's race in Virginia. That Republican, Glenn Youngkin won yesterday that educational issues and particularly questions of parental autonomy in education got a lot of purchase and won a lot of votes for Republicans," explained Matthew Wilson, SMU police science professor. "And so they would be foolish to let it go, and I don't think they will." 

Wilson says Republicans could use it as a strategy to reclaim voters in the suburbs they've lost in recent years.

The Texas Association of School Boards replied to Gov. Abbott’s letter, saying it was confused because it has no regularity authority over schools.