A Texas House committee’s investigation of books in public schools is unheard of in recent memory, but the committee has addressed burning issues in the past, said an academic who studies the legislature.
State Representative Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House General Inquiry Committee, this week asked some school district superintendents to catalog books and content on race, identity of gender and sex in school libraries and classrooms.
He also asked schools to keep track of spending on these books, citing the committee’s power to “initiate inquiries into” any “matter the committee deems necessary for the information of the legislature or for the welfare and justice. protection of the citizens of the State “.
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Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston who studies the legislature, including examining newspaper archives, said he had not come across a similar investigation in recent years, but reports from committee members investigating scandals date back to the 1960s and possibly before.
âThere is always some controversy, so they tend to be in the middle of the shootout on these issues,â he told the Statesman.
For example, in the 1960s the committee, chaired by then State Representative Tom James, held hearings and dove into the game at Beaumont in an effort to rid Texas of vices. . The committee became known as the James Committee, and United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy called Beaumont a “city of sin.”
As stated in the Texas government code, the five-member committee has wide latitude and serves as a “General House of Inquiry Committee.” This means he often investigates agencies and issues over which other legislative committees may not have jurisdiction or the “political strength” to investigate, Rottinghaus said.
âMost of their high-level investigations have historically been criminal cases,â he said. âSo, for example, there have been questions about the handling of DNA evidence in criminal cases. There has been persistent misuse of staff or pay issues by officials. They looked at unnecessary medical billing from dentists.
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Krause’s textbook investigation, which has been criticized by library advocates and Democrats as a way to score political points ahead of his 2022 bid for Texas attorney general, could be an effort to enforce new state laws targeting curriculum and classroom discussions on race, gender, and social justice issues, Rottinghaus said.
Krause’s request mirrored the language of one of those laws, asking schools to also identify books and “material that might inconvenience students … or convey that a student, because of their race or gender. , is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously. “
Texas laws state that the committee has the power to “initiate or continue investigations and hearings concerning” the state government, as well as “any agency or subdivision of government within the state” and “them. expenditure of public funds at any level of government within the state “.”
So Krause’s textbook investigation is fair game, Rottinghaus said, because school districts and school boards are local subdivisions of state government and use taxpayer dollars.
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Some have raised questions about whether Krause released the investigation with full committee support. Committee vice-chair Victoria Neave D-Dallas told the statesman she did not approve of Krause’s actions and was not told of the investigation until to have a local school district official alert him.
Krause and the other committee members, Reps Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and Reggie Smith, R-Sherman, did not respond to Statesman’s questions.
The fifth committee seat is vacant after former state representative Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, stepped down for a teaching position in public administration at San Antonio College.
Still, Krause could act without a majority vote from the committee, Rottinghaus said.
âIn general, committee chairs in Texas have been given a great deal of latitude in being able to use committee resources for their own purposes,â he said.
The Texas government code only appears to require a vote and majority support of committee members to conduct joint hearings or inquiries with the Texas Senate.
The committee “can start working as soon as it wishes after the appointment of its members” and “will meet, organize and adopt rules of evidence and procedure and any other necessary rules”, indicates the government code.
Persons who disobey a subpoena or other procedure that a general inquiry committee legally issues may be cited by the committee for contempt of the legislature, which is liable to a fine of $ 100 to $ 1,000. and imprisonment for at least 30 days and up to one year, according to Texas government code.
But because the request was not made as a formal request for public documents or a subpoena, school districts may decide to provide the available information but may not feel pressured to conduct a full-scale investigation, Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School. Advice, the Statesman once said.
For now, school district officials in Austin and Round Rock have said they will try to meet demand, although they have said it could take a lot of staff time.