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

Gov. Greg Abbott made a pitch last week to solidify parental rights as an amendment to the Texas Constitution. Because state law already grants parents rights related to their childrens education, some see the proposal as a way to score political points with pandemic-weary Texas parents. Here, Abbott is seen speaking to a retirement community in Georgetown, on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans focus on schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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