Austin ISD first to challenge Texas House investigation into books on racism and sexuality

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The Austin school district, one of the largest in the state, will not comply with a request by the Republican leader of the Texas House General Investigating Committee to confirm whether it has certain books in its libraries.

“After doing more legal research, we decided that an answer was not necessary, especially since anyone can search our library catalogs,” said district spokesperson Jason. Stanford.

This was the first report by a district without considering the letter sent by the committee chair, State Representative Matt Krause, who comes against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the primary of the GOP. Democratic members of the committee, including its vice chairman, said they were not consulted before the letter was released and did not approve of its content.

On Friday night, the Dallas ISD said it had not received the committee’s request, but would not comply if it did because the letter is “unofficial.”

Krause did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his office said the committee’s policy was not to comment on ongoing investigations.

17 school districts confirmed having received the committee’s request for information

Aldine, Austin, Conroe, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, El Paso, Fort Bend, Frisco, Houston, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Katy, Lake Travis, Leander, North East and Northside in Bexar County, Northwest to Denton, Plano and Spring branch

Districts who said they would comply: 2

Northeast in Bexar County and Northwest in Denton County

Districts that have said they will not comply: 1

Austin


In the October 25 letter, Krause asked a number of districts to provide information on how many books on a list of more than 850 he had provided them which they were carrying to school and classroom libraries. class and how much they cost to acquire.

He also asked districts to make their own lists of any other books that touch on human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or any other material that “might make students feel uncomfortable, guilty, unhappy, anxiety or any other form of psychological distress ”because of their race or gender.

Democrats and education groups have denounced the effort as a precursor to censorship.

“Censorship in any form is not only a threat to individual knowledge and growth, but to the foundation of our democracy,” Texas Library Association executive director Shirley Robinson said in a statement. . “Limiting education is doing a huge disservice to Texas students and their communities, who need engaged and informed citizens who can meet future challenges. “

In the letter, Krause, a founding member of the Tory House Freedom Caucus, described the impetus of the investigation as a series of controversies in Texas school districts – Carroll, Spring Branch, Lake Travis, Leander and Katy – involving books that parents wanted to remove from shelves.

Krause said his goal was to ensure compliance with House Bill 3979, the controversial legislation Governor Greg Abbott signed in June that limits what teachers can talk about when it comes to race and history in America and bans the teaching of “critical theory of race”. “

Of 17 districts that confirmed to Hearst Newspapers that they received the letter, Austin and Dallas are the only ones so far to say they will not respond.

Most districts said they were still review the request with lawyers and other staff. The Northwestern DSI in Denton County and the Northeastern DSI in Bexar County were the only districts to say with certainty that they would respond.

The request so far has come in the form of a letter to the superintendents, but the committee has subpoena power and could exercise it. Disobeying a subpoena could lead to a district being prosecuted for contempt of court, with a penalty of up to one year in prison.

Since the House committee’s request for information was an informal request that was neither a subpoena nor a request for public documents, it is open to “substantial interpretation,” said Joy Baskin, director of public documents. Texas Association of School Boards Legal Services.

As such, some districts may treat the letter as a request for public information – which may take longer than the November 12 deadline and may not guarantee Krause the right to certain information, he said. she declared.

The cost of an individual book, for example, is not something districts tend to track in the budget process, and another part of Krause’s request is for districts to look for books that meet certain criteria. . Texas Open Records Act does not require government agencies to prepare answers to questions or compile statistics from already public data.

“I would say that most districts are likely to consider a request for the district to investigate, and if you really think about it, that would theoretically require the district to review all the books,” Baskin said, adding that for them. large districts, that could mean inventorying hundreds of thousands of books across multiple campuses.

“Given the scope of the claim, even if it had been served as a summons, I don’t think a district could easily comply as it still requires a fair amount of interpretation.”

Twelve of the state’s 20 largest districts with a student body of over 50,000 students confirmed to Hearst Newspapers that they received the letter, including El Paso, Frisco, Houston, Katy, North East and Northside.

It is still unclear which districts received copies of the letter – as Krause’s office and the Texas Education Agency declined to say – as well as how Krause compiled the list of the books in question, which includes the award winners. Pulitzer and other bestsellers from various authors.

In an interview with Dallas radio show host Mark Davis on Friday, Krause suggested the list was intended to cover books that could potentially be in violation of bills passed by lawmakers this year, including one that limited what teachers in Texas can talk about when it comes to race and history in America.

“This list of books is not exhaustive. It’s not exclusive, ”he said. “Just because a book is on this list doesn’t mean it’s problematic. It just means that it contains content that can be changed by new provisions passed by the Texas Legislature. “

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