Following an easy primary win over a field of far-right challengers, Texas Governor Greg Abbott seems to be shifting his position on public education to garner more votes from teachers.
On Tuesday, Abbott’s office and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that “school districts in Texas may be eligible for an adjustment in operational minutes requirements for certain attendance reporting periods during the 2021-2022 academic school year,” ensuring that funding will be made available to school districts suffering attendance declines due to the lingering effects of the coronavirus.
“Providing this adjustment to the 2021-22 school year will ensure school systems have the funding they need to retain the best and brightest teachers and provide quality education to all public-school students across Texas,” Abbott said. “We have made tremendous strides to return more of our students back to the classroom, and will continue in our efforts to do so.”
The move is likely a response to an earlier letter from the Texas House Public Education Committee calling for average daily attendance (ADA) relief but it also represents a shift for Abbott from previous stances that seemed to attack public schools based on support for school choice, parental rights and concerns over what he called “pornography” in school library books.
In January, Abbott voiced support for school choice at an event in Kingwood when he stated, “This upcoming session, you’re going to see a stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the State of Texas.”
This followed a previous release of a Parental Bill of Rights at a charter school in Lewisville, Texas. At that time Abbott stated the bill of rights was needed because “there have been some reports of some school districts prohibiting parents from voicing their concerns about school curriculum and policies.” Critics of Abbott’s measure believed that the move was campaign fodder indicating that every issue addressed in the document already exists in state law and local policies.
Most troubling to school leaders and community members was Abbott’s allegation that pornography is ubiquitous in public school libraries. Abbott thought the problem was big enough that he directed the TEA to conduct criminal investigations into school districts stating, “The presence of pornography in schools is not only inappropriate, but it is also against the law. In Texas, it is illegal to provide pornography to anyone under the age of 18 according to Section 43.24 of the Texas Penal Code. The fact that pornographic material that serves no educational purpose has been made available to students in Texas public schools is a clear violation of the law.”
The shift away from these issues to stances that seem more supportive of public schools is seen as political pandering by many politicos, with some noting that Abbott’s concerns about schools and schoolteachers only emerged after the primary election. Less than a week after the primary, Abbott released a letter calling on the TEA to create a teacher task force to “investigate the challenges teacher vacancies are causing for school districts, explore best practices for addressing this shortage, and research the possibility for flexibility of certification, placement, and hiring.”
Once the task force was created, concerns emerged almost immediately when it was discovered that only two teachers were on the task force of 28 school leaders. Complaints about the lack of teachers were numerous, leading TEA to expand the task force by adding 24 teachers and nearly doubling the size of the group.
Concerns about Abbott’s flip on public education abound among educators and community members, with many wondering why he is suddenly so concerned about public schools and teachers after seemingly attacking them.
Abbott is not alone in shifting his narrative. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick – long a harsh critic of Texas public schools said, “I support this adjustment in order to help our schools navigate this school year and continue to educate all students. My primary focus has and will continue to be ensuring that every Texas student receives a high-quality education, and this adjusted funding will help our schools continue that mission.”
It is not unusual for politicians to move to the center of issues following a primary election. They must appeal to a broader electorate during a general election, so the shift is often necessary to win. For Abbott, the shift is much more noticeable because he has been so vituperative in his attacks on public schools.
For many, Abbott’s concern for teachers seems disingenuous. After drawing a target on their backs for parents and community members, he now wants to embrace them. We shall see how that works out for him come November.