Month: <span>May 2021</span>

Public safety, democracy at risk as legislative session winds to a close

Public health and safety, education and the protection of democracy are three of the basic responsibilities of our system of state and local government. But the governor, the lieutenant governor and their allies in the Legislature are tossing those responsibilities out the window.

Barring an unforeseen change in direction in the next few days, this legislative session will end up as the most insensitive, reckless and undemocratic session in many years.

Public health and safety? After lawmakers have gone home, Texas will remain the state with the highest number (more than 5 million) and highest percentage (almost one-fifth) of residents without health insurance because the governor and legislative leaders are sticking to their misguided and short-sighted refusal to expand Medicaid coverage for the poorest Texans, including thousands of school children.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s actions forcing schools to open prematurely in the middle of a deadly pandemic, ignoring the pleas of school employees for vaccine priority until President Biden ordered it and banning mask mandates were insensitive. His endorsement of a proposed law to allow almost any nincompoop to carry around a loaded gun without benefit of basic firearms safety training is tragic. Barring a miracle, that proposal will pass.

Public education? The state finally started releasing $11.2 billion in federal pandemic relief funds to school districts, but only after educators were unified in demanding it. Another almost-$7 billion is available, but the federal government hasn’t released it yet, partly because the Legislature has refused to add another $1.2 billion to the higher education budget, which the federal government requires and our universities need. Instead, the state is seeking a waiver to avoid that expenditure. And there is no assurance that state leaders, if Texas gets the additional $7 billion, won’t try to divert it from public education, despite what Congress intended.

Meanwhile, legislation to make it easier for corporate charter chains, many based outside Texas, to siphon millions of additional tax dollars from under-funded public schools has been advancing in the statehouse.

Democracy? Legislation, approved in separate bills by the House and the Senate, to discourage teachers from teaching about racial injustices, past and present, and discourage the discussion of current events and political activity by students is both a denial of history and an effort to curb democratic participation. It is a disservice to all school children and a slap in the face for the children of color, who make up a majority of students in Texas public schools.

It also is a blatant attempt to discredit the people of color who are making their voices heard and seeking redress for a number of legitimate, festering grievances that should have been addressed years ago. These include unequal economic opportunities, stemming from a history of systemic racism, and the unnecessary and tragic use of deadly force by police against unarmed Black people.

Politicians used to praise local control and the virtues of the governments closest to the people. But the politicians now in charge at the state Capitol are continuing their campaign to curb the independence of elected officials – and the voters who elected them – in cities and counties that have enacted programs and policies that the powers in Austin oppose. This is another assault on democracy.

But the worst assault is legislation, pushed by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the legislative majority, to make it more difficult for many Texans to vote. They are claiming a need to strengthen election “integrity,” when, in truth, there have been very few documented cases of voter fraud in Texas. And Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

The bill, instead, is intended to appease those voters who believe or want to believe Donald Trump’s dangerous lie that the recent presidential election was “stolen.” It also is intended to make it more difficult for people who oppose the dangerous and shortsighted policies discussed above to vote.

That’s not election integrity. That’s an attack on democracy.

Clay Robison

Let social studies teachers teach all the facts, including the sins of Texas, past and present

The war over American and Texas history and how it should be taught is expanding – in the nation’s capital as well as in Texas and other states. On one side are political spin and lies. On the other side are education and facts.

In Austin, the House is advancing legislation, already approved by the Senate (HB3979 and SB2202), designed to restrict the lessons teachers can teach about the racist side of Texas as well as discourage political participation by students. Similar bills to ban the teaching of so-called critical race theory are being considered in other states. They are in sharp contrast to President Biden’s plans to promote teaching in the classroom that includes “racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives.”

Biden is fighting racism and inequality. The Texas legislative majority would let racism and inequality continue to fester unchallenged by deliberately prolonging the fear and ignorance that helps spawn both.

Racism and inequality have infected our history from Day One, but political sensitivities were aroused a few years ago when The New York Times published the “1619 Project,” a comprehensive examination of the origins of slavery in the United States and the systemic consequences of the evil institution that we still suffer from today, including its lingering impact on an economic system sharply divided between haves and have-nots.

Then-President Trump reacted by creating the 1776 Commission to sanitize the history curriculum by deemphasizing the nation’s sins, both past and present, and promoting Trump’s narrow white man’s view of a “patriotic” America.

Upon taking office, Biden promptly got rid of the 1776 Commission and has been promoting more diverse perspectives on our history, acknowledging the lasting impact of slavery on inequality and pointing out the significant contributions of Black Americans.

And Republican leaders across the country are pushing back. In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and about three dozen of his Republican Senate colleagues protested the new president’s focus in a recent letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

They contended that Biden was promoting a “politicized and divisive agenda” fixated on the country’s flaws, not its greatness, and would hurt Americans’ pride in their country.

Biden is promoting an agenda, but it is simply an agenda to teach history as it occurred and make sure our students understand the consequences of history, even those parts of our history some people would rather ignore. Our students deserve nothing less. The politicization and divisiveness are being stirred up by Biden’s opponents, including the supporters of the Texas legislation, who have put politics over education and what’s best for our state and country.

Texas students must be encouraged to fully explore and understand the racism, sexism and other injustices in our history and society if Texas is to provide all members of a rapidly diversifying population with a chance at an equitable future. And their teachers must be free to guide them.

Clay Robison