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'The worst political environment for public schools': Teachers go back to school amid rising tensions

A sign, in Spanish, requiring people to wear masks is on the door to a classroom on the first day of school at Travis High School in Austin.
Jordan Vonderhaar
Texas teachers are dealing with the ongoing pandemic, staff shortages, and now, more prominently, the political forces pushing them on social topics such as race and LGBTQ issues.

Texas teachers are feeling more pressure than ever as they start welcoming students back into their classrooms.

Not only do teachers have to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and staff shortages, but they also have had to face the increasing political tension brought by activists in their communities, who have come after critical race theory and LGBTQ issues.

Steven Poole, the executive director of the United Educators Association, an organization that represents over 26,000 teachers and education staff across North Texas, said all of this is draining for educators.

“I’ve been with UEA for 22 years and this is the worst political environment for public schools and public school teachers that I’ve seen in a long time,” Poole told The Texas Newsroom.

He says public education is being scrutinized like never before.

Last month, for example, a group of community members and conservative activists flooded a school board meeting for the Fort Worth Independent School District.

They all spoke against the district’s Racial Equity Committee and critical race theory.

“When we talk about racial equity, we are transporting oppression from the past and replacing it on this generation,” Farryn Wright, a community member, told the board. “When we say anti-racism, are we not re-magnifying the concept of race?”

Valeria Nevares, who identified herself as a first generation American who is in college, said critical race theory “is killing grit and passion for hard work in this generation.”

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an intellectual movement that argues racism is inherent in the country’s systems and institutions.

Texas educators say they don’t teach CRT in K-12 schools. Still, conservatives — and the Texas legislature — have gone after discussions of race in the classroom.

Poole, with the United Educators Association, said teachers and educators are doing their work, and that parents and activists need to remember teachers do not make decisions on curriculum. That’s the responsibility of the state and school boards.

“Here we are … there’s so much excitement, and teachers are excited to have their students back, but you just hear all of this constant criticism and it weighs on them,” he said.

Rena Honea, the president of the Dallas-based teachers organization Alliance-AFT, said her members are “extremely frustrated with what’s happening.”

“What is very, very frustrating to them is that non-educators are the ones that are driving this, for what many of them believe are political reasons,” Honea said. “And while education is not a political entity, as such, we have been having to deal with political issues for the last probably 20 years.”

Teachers leaving the profession

This political climate could hamper recruitment efforts in Texas.

According to the Texas Education Agency, teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates than in previous years.

There are many examples of educators who have left their jobs over the pressure received from the public.

One of them is Dr. James Whitfield, the former principal — and first African American principal — at Colleyville Heritage High School in Tarrant County.

In 2020, during the protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Whitfield sent an email to the school community, where he wrote that “Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism.”

"It received positive praise when I sent it out,” Whitfield recalled. “People said, ‘Thank you for sending that you know, we feel seen,’ specifically that was from people of color.”

But a year later, in 2021, some community members started to complain and called for Whitfield’s firing.

One critic — a white man— said that Whitfield asking community members to be anti-racists was a signal to destroy the community and state.

“For these people they would love nothing more than for school to be for straight, white, Christian people,” Whitfield told the Texas Newsroom. “(People) that are just going to believe a romanticized history and just fall in line and not really think critically (and) just be about, as they say, reading, writing, arithmetic.”

The Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District ended up placing Whitfield on paid administrative leave until August 2023.

Whitfield says he also worries about LGBTQ students and teachers, who might not feel safe at school due to the anti-LGBT rhetoric pushed by conservative politicians, and activists.

“It's been sickening, it's been heartbreaking, because … education is the great disrupter of inequity,” Whitfield said. “And we've got people that are disrupting that disruptor and trying to create a system that is not for everybody.”

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the former Texas Capitol reporter for The Texas Newsroom.
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