Texas’s Fight Over School Books

“At what point do I practice subversion?” a teacher wondered.,

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This is the Education Briefing, a weekly update on the most important news in U.S. education. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Today, a battle over books in school libraries; changes in school and union leadership; and one woman’s search for Black Santa.


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In 2018, a state education committee proposed striking a reference to the “heroic” defenders at the Alamo. Credit…Matthew Busch for The New York Times

The battle over how schools should address the country’s history of racism has crossed over into a debate over the books on library shelves.

In Texas, after the state passed a law shaping how teachers approach instruction touching on race and gender, Republican politicians zeroed-in on books.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott directed education officials to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography.” A Republican state representative also emailed superintendents a list of 850 books, asking if they were in school libraries or classrooms.

The list was a mix of half-century-old novels — including “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron — and works by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Margaret Atwood, as well as edgy young adult books touching on sexual identity.

The list is just one example. This fall, a talk by an award-winning writer was canceled. The first Black principal in a Dallas suburb resigned, accused of sanctioning the teaching of critical race theory.

This month, a San Antonio district ordered 400 books taken off its shelves for a review. And the state education agency opened an investigation in a district in North Texas over whether it gave students books with “sexually explicit content.”

Absent any state law, some librarians have been told to pre-emptively pull down books.

“One minute they’re talking critical race theory,” said Carrie Damon, a middle school librarian. “Suddenly I’m hearing librarians are indoctrinating students.”

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Carrie Damon, a middle school librarian, celebrated national “Banned Books Week” with her students by talking about literature’s beauty and subversive power.Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

My colleague Michael Powell reported that teachers are all but slapping their heads in frustration.

Some pointed in particular to the clause in the state law that says a teacher must not inculcate the idea that students should feel “responsibility, blame or guilt” because of their race or sex. The state representative, Matt Krause, went a step further, suggesting that a teacher might overstep simply by assigning a book that troubles a student.

To teach Shakespeare and Toni Morrison, to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Frederick Douglass, teachers told Michael, is to elicit swells of emotions, out of which can arise introspection and self-recognition, sorrow and joy.

The challenge is no different for a social studies teacher talking of Cherokee dying along the Trail of Tears or white gangs lynching Black and Mexican people.

“I have had kids triggered by difficult texts,” said Ayn Nys, an English teacher. “It’s our responsibility to prepare students emotionally and intellectually with a diversity of voices.”

Fights over books are not new, especially not in Texas.

One flashpoint: the Alamo. People of Mexican and Indigenous descent have long tried to complicate an entrenched state narrative about the battle. This year, the Republican lieutenant governor pressured a museum to cancel a panel to discuss a revisionist book — “Forget the Alamo” — examining its slaveholding combatants.

Another point of argument: The 1619 Project. Now a book, the special issue of The New York Times Magazine tried to place Black Americans and the consequences of slavery at the center of America’s narrative. The law singles it out as forbidden.

The Texas law does not mention critical race theory. But it does prohibit teachers from portraying slavery and racism as “anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States.”

This conflicts with the views of many scholars — including many writing in The 1619 Project — who note that from America’s founding, slavery was woven into the structure of the nation and the Constitution.

“Education is not above the fray; it is the fray,” said Robert Pondiscio, a former teacher and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy group. “It’s naive to think otherwise.”

As the first semester of a third pandemic school year draws to a close, many teachers and parents across the state are wondering: How does this end?

“OK, you ban a book — does that ban the topic?” Kathleen Harrison, another teacher, said while shaking her head. “At what point do I practice subversion?”


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“We’re going to continue to stand up and fight any efforts to censor our teachers, and continue to teach the true and complete history of America,” Becky Pringle said.Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

Chicago has a new school chief executive. New York City and Los Angeles will soon have new leadership. And Becky Pringle, who became president of the National Education Association last year, is helping shape education policy. Here, a spin through this changing of the guard.

Becky Pringle: Under President Biden, teachers’ unions have re-emerged as power players in shaping federal education policy. The N.E.A., in particular, has enjoyed increased visibility: Jill Biden, the first lady and a longtime educator, is a member.

But the union has been criticized for having outsize power — both in the Biden administration and over school reopening decisions during the pandemic.

Pringle defended her union in a tweet: “It’s no secret we want to keep our students and schools safe.” And she is also plunging into the racial reckoning unfolding in the public schools. For more, here’s a profile by my colleague Erica Green.

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David Banks, right, is a friend and close adviser to Mayor-elect Eric Adams.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

David Banks: The next N.Y.C. schools chancellor will occupy arguably the second-most-influential education job in America, after the federal education secretary.

Banks, the founder of the Eagle Academy for Young Men and a close friend and key adviser to the incoming mayor, Eric Adams, has sweeping changes in mind for the sprawling, beleaguered system: He said his first priorities would include expanding early childhood education options, improving career pathways for older students, and combating students’ trauma.

“The very fabric of how we’re actually measuring our children, and measuring progress for our schools, is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that test scores don’t mean anything; they do. They just don’t mean everything.” Here’s a profile, by my colleague Eliza Shapiro.

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“I want to demonstrate the possibilities of reinventing education,” Alberto Carvalho said.Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Alberto Carvalho: In 2018, he quite publicly spurned New York City and opted to stay as the head of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. But Carvalho is now heading west — to be the next superintendent of Los Angeles public schools, the second-largest district in the U.S.

The Los Angeles Times writes that Carvalho brings “a reputation for stability and improved student achievement.” Los Angeles faces “sharply declining enrollment and a long-term structural deficit.”

Carvalho spoke of the urgency of addressing “unprecedented learning loss and unfinished learning as a result of this pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the most fragile amongst us — students of color, students who are poor English-language learners, and students with disabilities.” Here’s the L.A. Times profile.


K-12

College

  • Middlebury College, which has a 99 percent vaccination rate among students, moved to remote instruction amid an outbreak.

  • Cornell University went on high alert after finding evidence of the Omicron variant on campus, closing libraries and other facilities. According to the school’s Covid-19 dashboard, 97 percent of Cornell’s population is fully vaccinated.

  • New York University, where 99 percent of students and faculty are fully vaccinated, canceled events after a coronavirus surge.

  • Princeton University moved finals online, to enable students to leave for home as soon as possible.

  • Many colleges in New England and elsewhere will mandate booster shots.


K-12

  • The Supreme Court may take another step toward requiring states to pay for religious education, as justices weighed a case concerning a tuition program in Maine.

  • Teachers in South Dakota competed to grab cash from a pile of $1 bills at a hockey game this weekend, leading to widespread outrage — and an apology.

  • A good read: The Washington Post spoke with a grandmother who took the rare step of reporting her grandson to the police when she discovered that he was planning an attack.

College

  • Jim Malatras, the chancellor of the State University of New York, said he would resign after text messages showed he had belittled a woman who later accused former Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment.

  • Professors at the University of South Carolina worry they could lose their jobs for teaching critical race theory.

  • An analysis: “There are few clearer illustrations of our inequality than the adjacency of regally designed universities with multibillion-dollar endowments and single-digit acceptance rates to neighborhoods haunted by generations of intractable poverty,” my colleague Ginia Bellafante writes, reflecting on the recent killing of a Columbia graduate student.

And, also, this too …

  • An urban gardening program is blossoming in Washington, D.C.

  • The HPV vaccine can prevent six potentially lethal cancers, but many parents resist giving it to their children.

  • Your kid’s bad behavior may be a good thing, experts say. The safer children feel, the more they can show their true selves and express their frustrations. And that’s good for their development.

  • Some good news: A talking crow briefly befriended elementary students in Oregon. “It was like a parrot,” an education assistant said. “It was the weirdest thing.”


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Kelvin Douglas, a Santa Claus in Houston.Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Nancy Redd’s mother used to use brown markers, crayons and colored pencils to make their Christmas decorations “into mirror images of our own family.”

“To young me he wasn’t Black Santa,” Nancy writes in a moving essay. “He was simply Santa, no adjective required.”

Now, Nancy is a mother. But most Santas in mainstream media are still white. “The dearth of dark-skinned Santas felt personal, as though my family’s image was being snubbed,” Nancy writes.

So she spent hours online, ordering personalized letters from Black Santa or looking for homemade ornaments. She searched the city for a Black Santa for pictures. Earlier this year, she published a picture book — “The Real Santa.” It is one of at least three published this year featuring non-white Santas.

That’s it for this briefing. See you next week!

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