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Three El Paso school districts part of Republican book probe

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At least one El Paso school district is resisting a state Republican lawmaker’s inquiry into whether library or classroom books in its inventory deal with race and gender.

Socorro Independent School District officials declined to manually search their library catalogue and classroom collections for the almost 850 books state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said violate “anti-critical race theory” legislation aimed at restricting how Texas public school teachers discuss race and topics that could cause students “discomfort.”

As chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, Krause is asking select districts which books they have and the amount spent on them. He further wants them to identify other books that address “human sexuality” or that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” That language is pulled from the “anti-critical race theory” bill the Texas Legislature passed during its regular session.

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Socorro officials said Nov. 5 they will inform Krause that “all titles in our library system are publicly searchable and can be viewed by any interested party” in reply to his Oct. 25 inquiry letter.

Spokespersons for the El Paso and Ysleta independent school districts have repeatedly said staff are still “reviewing” the letter. No other El Paso County superintendent received it.

Krause told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that each of the 849 titles on his list “has some content in it that corresponds with some of the new policies that Texas put in place, whether it’s on sexuality, whether it’s on race.”

Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have increasingly focused on restricting how students learn about race-related topics, and have taken particular aim at critical race theory, even though it’s not taught in Texas public schools. The academic concept is used at the university level to examine how U.S. policies, laws and institutions perpetuate systemic racism and inequalities.

Krause, who was relatively unknown until now, is running for Texas attorney general in 2022 in a crowded race that includes big name Republican candidates, including incumbent Ken Paxton.

“Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter” by Shani Mahiri King; “Sex: A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex, and Safety” by Nikol Hasler; “Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby Rivera; and “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz are among those on the list state Rep. Matt Krause compiled. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Krause hasn’t disclosed which superintendents received his inquiry letter. Media reports indicate it was mostly large, urban districts, including Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas independent school districts.

Though he gave a deadline of Friday, Nov. 12, to respond, districts are not legally required to comply, said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. That’s because his letter was not issued as part of a formal committee investigation or subpoena, she said.

Many districts are treating it as a public information request, according to Baskin, and are directing Krause to publicly available library catalogues or sending a cost estimate of what it will take to compile the information.

Krause’s office did not respond to a request for comment about action he may pursue if districts do not comply with his request or respond to the letter.

El Paso author part of book probe

Benjamin Alire Sáenz

The nonfiction and fiction books on Krause’s list include those about race and social justice, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

There are also books about gender and sexuality, including El Paso author Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” an award-winning young-adult novel, which Lin-Manual Miranda is adapting into a movie. It tells the story of two Mexican-American teen boys in El Paso whose friendship takes a romantic turn. Krause’s list includes both English and Spanish versions of the book.

Reached Tuesday, Sáenz said he believes Krause singled out his novel simply because he is a gay, Latino writer.

“He doesn’t know what my book is about,” Sáenz said. “He can put my book on (the list) if he wants to — it will only sell me more books. … If you ban a book, people buy it.”

“The book isn’t about being gay. It’s about coming to terms and discovering who you are,” he said. “It’s a coming-of-age novel about two kids and their supportive parents. I don’t know why anybody would object to parents loving their children in times of crisis.”

Sáenz views the probe as a politically motivated endeavor on the part of Krause.

“He (Krause) wants to make a splash and move to the right,” Sáenz said. “But to play politics with young people’s education is not acceptable.”

‘Next step’ in ongoing culture wars

Though critical race theory is not part of the K-12 curriculum in Texas or nationwide, it has become a conservative buzzword for anything related to how race and inequities are taught or discussed in public school classrooms.

Lawmakers’ focus on classroom discussions and materials is part of a larger reckoning the United States is having about racism and the legacy of slavery and the nation’s changing demographics, said Amber Archuleta-Lucero, an associate professor of government at El Paso Community College.

“One of the things that we’ve been doing as a country is trying to figure out and navigate our way through hard discussions,” Archuleta-Lucero said. “And these harder conversations have become on steroids because you have situations like George Floyd, which have catapulted and springboarded large issues and movements.”

Some of the children’s and young adult books that are part of state Rep. Matt Krause’s inquiry. (Angela Saavedra/El Paso Matters)

Krause’s book probe is “the predestined next step” in these culture wars, said Jonna Perrillo, an associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“Historians and English teachers both teach about the human experience,” Perrillo said. “This is about curtailing who gets to be the star of that story … and whose experience is privileged.”

Literature is “differently threatening” to conservative lawmakers because unlike curriculum for history classes, they can’t dismiss a work of fiction as unimportant or incorrectly told, Perrillo said.

Under Texas’ “critical race theory” legislation, social studies teachers cannot be compelled to discuss current events or a “currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” If they do, they must present “contending perspectives.” Another bill, which takes effect Dec. 2, expands that to teachers in all subjects.

Lawmakers’ efforts to protect white, middle class students from feeling guilty about their race is based on the false assumption that this is how students react to books like those on Krause’s list, Perrillo said.

“Privileged kids can have a number of responses to reading a graphic novel about an African American student that has nothing to do with guilt — that’s about interest and pleasure and broadening their world,” she said. “I see that firsthand with young adult readers.”

In recent days, Texas’ governor, who is up for reelection in 2022, has broadened his focus from race to include how sex and gender identity are taught. Abbott made passing stricter critical race theory legislation a priority of his specially-called legislative sessions.

On Wednesday, he called on the Texas Education Agency to investigate “pornographic material that serves no educational purpose” in public schools.

Days earlier, Abbott raised concerns with the state agency about two award-winning memoirs by queer authors that detail their sexual experiences — both of which are on Krause’s list. He asked the TEA to develop standards to prevent the presence of “pornography and other obscene content” in public schools.

Cover photo: Some of the children’s and young adult books that are part of state Rep. Matt Krause’s inquiry. (Angela Saavedra/El Paso Matters)

Disclosure: Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Jonna Perrillo are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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