Southlake school Holocaust incident shows what a mess Texas made with race theory law

As local school districts — most prominently, Carroll — struggle with the implementation of Texas’ new laws on teaching social studies, we’re getting a real-time view of the consequences of bad policymaking.

Republican legislative leaders, determined to root out “critical race theory” in Texas schools, wrote a vague law on what teachers can say in certain lessons. State officials have offered little useful guidance on how more than 1,000 school districts must apply the original bill and the clean-up effort enacted in a special session.

So, we’ve seen what often happens in bureaucracies: overly cautious rules that defy common sense.

In Southlake, an administrator told teachers that if they have, for example, a book about the Holocaust in the classroom, they must offer the “opposing view,” according to a recording that NBC News obtained. Everyone from the state teachers association to the author of the law called that a wild misinterpretation, but the story was off and running nationwide.

Neither the original law, HB 3979, nor a clean-up bill from lawmakers’ second special session says anything about the Holocaust. No reasonable person would say that the Holocaust constitutes “a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” that requires objective treatment under the second law. And it’s far from clear that the law is even meant to govern classroom libraries.

But there’s too much ambiguity. Teachers are rightly concerned about getting caught in a political maelstrom. So, administrators such as Gina Peddy, Carroll’s executive director for curriculum and instruction, are applying overly broad strictures.

Carroll school board president Michelle Moore said that Peddy reached for a bad example. The incident may have stemmed from a confluence of events: a dust-up over an anti-racism book in a Carroll teacher’s classroom, a grievance filed with the school board in that case and the confusion over the new law.

“As a district, we have to work hand in hand with teachers to better understand the legislation, how it’s implemented, the curriculum,” Moore said. “We possibly rushed things, and now we need to take a step back.”

If the state wants to reach this far into the classroom, it must provide better guidance to those who have to somehow make it work. The Texas Education Agency issued a roundup of new education legislation, but it mostly restates what the Legislature passed.

The Carroll district gave teachers an elaborate rubric for teachers to evaluate books. A copy of the worksheet obtained by the Texas Tribune shows questions to consider on “credibility,” “perspective” and “appropriateness.”

It seems to have little connection to what’s in the state laws. Moore said it came from a group that coordinates among social studies teachers, so it likely predates them.

Carroll district officials must realize that they are in the spotlight, and every step will be scrutinized. It may be unfair; they’re far from alone in trying to slog through the Legislature’s substandard work. But administrators can help themselves by not overreacting and going further than lawmakers required.

Throughout the Southlake community, leaders should be working toward compromise and consensus, turning down the heat wherever possible. Strong denunciations of the Holocaust and the notion of an opposing view were appropriate, but Mayor John Huffman did the community no favors when he attacked NBC reporters.

We can debate whether Carroll deserves a national media organization’s sustained attention, but the district is a public entity, and media scrutiny is part of the deal.

Most of all, communities everywhere need to support teachers who are trying to comply with various demands. There will always be examples of rogue educators who seek to defy parents and impart their own political preferences. But they are few, and the vast majority are dedicated to the children they serve.

Teachers also know they’re being watched, and in Southlake, the grievance over the anti-racism book may be taking a toll. Just weeks ago, in the incident over an anti-racism book in the classroom, the school board voted narrowly to overrule administrators and discipline an elementary teacher after parents complained that she reprimanded a student. Teachers may conclude the board will not have their backs in a dispute.

“Teachers are feeling insecure,” Moore said. “They’re scared and confused.”

More districts will go through this, and the battles will eventually shift to the State Board of Education, which must revise the state curriculum by the end of next year.

Maybe those policymakers will have better luck straightening out the Legislature’s mess.