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Texas has a problem that goes beyond the stories in the school library books.
If you were embarrassed and asked what to do in public education in Texas, and if you were a candidate for the next GOP primary, boxing some of the books available in schools might be the first thing on your lips. Perhaps you are also worried about subversive ideas in social studies and history texts.
But dictating what students are allowed to read depends on their ability to read in the first place. Dropping test scores and learning lost due to the pandemic might not enlighten crowds at political rallies, but it’s a bigger problem than the books that offend the tender sensibilities of lawmakers.
Election years are like that.
With any luck, you can put off these debates until 2022 arrives in a few weeks. After that, it will be almost impossible to ignore. It is already difficult to ignore: as of Monday, the people who will be at the polls have all deposited their papers with the parties and the State. The usual Austin spots where pols go to fundraise are teeming with check-writing lobbyists and other interested parties. Voting in the primary begins in the third week of February. The wave of political advertising will begin as soon as the holiday advertising stops.
Some voters get by by turning everything off. Turnout in the party’s primary elections in Texas is dismal. In 2020, the presidential election year when turnout is generally highest, 12.4% of registered voters ran for the Republican primary and 12.9% voted for the Democratic primary. Most – 74.6% – did not vote in these primaries. The numbers are even lower when you look at the state’s entire voting age population – registered voters and Texans who did not register. Less than 20% of adults in the state went to the polls two years ago.
Others get away with limiting their attention to only candidates on their own side of the party line. This cuts the noise in half.
Some spend their attention carefully, stick to the issues they care about, and ignore the noisy corner issues that sometimes overwhelm political conversations and turn the public square – or living room – into a kennel full of barking dogs.
Some candidates take advantage of the barking, and fears aroused by whistles that only their supporters can hear. Plus, it’s easier to get a crowd excited by something uncomfortable in a young adult novel than by declining scores on math tests.
Want a taste? In 2019, 48% of third-graders and 56% of fifth-graders met or exceeded the standard for STAAR tests in Texas public schools, according to the Texas Education Agency. In the spring of 2021, 30% of third-graders and 43% of fifth-graders lived up to these tests.
Wars over the content of books are as old as books. It would be nice if people argue so hard why students don’t spend enough time in libraries in the first place. But content fights are better political issues, sparking the passion of voters without risking debating the overall quality of education children receive in Texas.
Education is difficult – for teachers, students, policy and legal decision-makers and politicians. It’s easier, unless voters are unusually focused, to influence an election with a debate about books that most people will never open than to influence it with a debate on STAAR reading ratings which have fallen every year in elementary and middle schools in Texas over the past two years.
What is written in books is only a problem for people who can read. But in Texas politics, the quality of education is not what draws a crowd to the polls. If so, politicians would recommend books to read instead of removing titles from the shelves.