As you may already know, one of the many new laws the Legislature enacted this year will allow school districts to hire religious chaplains to counsel students. Districts also can accept their services as volunteers. This law, however, is less about helping troubled students than it is about doing what the political right wing does best – stoking the culture wars.
If the lawmakers who promoted putting chaplains in schools really cared about helping troubled students, they would have appropriated funding instead to allow districts to start hiring more professional counselors, specifically those trained in working in public schools. The post-pandemic need is great, and so is the shortage of counselors.
In a report last year, the Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of organizations working to improve mental health support in schools, said 363,000 students in Texas public schools suffered from depression and 255,000 of those didn’t receive treatment. The report also noted that the ratio of school counselors to students in Texas was one to 423, almost double the ratio of one to 250 students recommended by mental health experts. The ratio of school psychologists to students was one to 4,962, instead of the recommended one to 500.
The Legislature’s answer though was religious chaplains, volunteer or paid, who don’t have to be trained or licensed in counseling or certified as educators. Instead, educators fear, some chaplains will simply use the opportunity to try to convert students to their religious beliefs. Religion has a place in our lives, but not in public schools. Our country’s founders intended church and state to remain separate, despite the claims of religious, revisionist, self-styled historians.
This law doesn’t require school districts to hire chaplains or accept them as volunteers. But it does require every school board in the state to publicly vote on whether to do so by next March. The Legislature passes a lot of permissive, non-mandatory laws, such as this one, but it is very unusual, maybe unheard of, for lawmakers to require local elected governing bodies to vote on one of these issues and give them a deadline to do so.
This provision assures that the issue will remain in the public eye for months to come. It will give religious conservatives another issue on which to run for election to school boards, particularly in conservative parts of the state. And it will give conservative culture warriors another issue with which to attack and try to intimidate school boards into submission.
As politically driven attacks on public education have spread, school boards already have had to contend with people unhappy over COVID masking, unhappy over books they don’t like and whatever other failure, real or imagined, their constituents found a reason to beef about. Now, here is another piece of red meat for the culture wars. This issue has absolutely nothing to do with public education. Instead, it will steal valuable time away from real student needs and feed the false, pro-privatization narrative that public schools are “failures.”