Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via AP

Porn in Schools?: Texas GOP Sparks a Moral Panic Ahead of the Primaries

With bans on books and “critical race theory,” Republicans are scapegoating the state’s teachers for political gain.

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As he gallivants across Texas trying to outdo his Republican challengers ahead of the GOP primary for governor on March 1, incumbent Greg Abbott is touting a solution in search of a problem. 

“The parental bill of rights empowers parents to hold their schools accountable; there must be accountability,” Abbott said during a campaign stop in Harlingen Wednesday along his “Celebration of Texas” tour. 

The proposed “Parental Bill of Rights,” which the governor added to his campaign platform last month, would amend the state constitution to allow parents to pre-screen curriculum materials and ban “pornographic” material in schools. Teachers found violating the policy would forfeit their public credentials and state licensing, lose their retirement, and be placed on a “do not hire” list by the Texas Education Agency.  

This sounds reasonable enough—who wants porn in schools?—until you realize the “pornography” Abbott refers to primarily includes books by women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ authors. In a race to the right during an election year, Abbott and other GOP politicians have stoked a moral panic in the education system, targeting teachers and schools amid an exodus from the profession in the state. 

“Established back in 1995, Chapter 26 of the education code already lays out all parental rights and responsibilities,” said Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators. The statute, Holmes noted, allows parents access to school curriculum materials, the ability to file complaints, and the option to remove their children from instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs. 

“If parents already have this vast toolbox of rights and responsibilities, what exactly is Governor Abbott after?” Holmes added. “He’s trying to drive a wedge between parents and local schools.”

Senator Ted Cruz joined the bandwagon on Friday, lambasting “left-wing educators” for “teach[ing] explicit pornography” to Texas public school students. 

“Take a look at some of the portions from books that parents are going to school boards and reading out loud; this is what my child is being taught,’” Cruz told Business Insider. “In too many instances, you have left-wing educators putting explicit pornography in front of kids. I think that is severely misguided.”

Along with banning books on race, gender, and sexuality, Republican lawmakers have scapegoated trans kids in sports and sought to limit instructors’ ability to teach “critical race theory”—a technical, academic term that has, through misuse, come to serve as shorthand for teaching the history of racism in K-12 schools. Ultimately, these measures have less to do with parental rights than marginalizing queer people and ensuring students remain ignorant of the country’s history, instead learning a fable in which America is always right—or comes to its senses eventually—and we march inexorably toward progress, always. That lie, however patriotic, impoverishes students’ understanding of the complexities of history and prevents them from thinking critically about our collective civic journey. 

Republican state Representative Matt Krause—a candidate for district attorney in Tarrant County and one of the sponsors of HB 3979, the state’s ban on “critical race theory”—launched an investigation into 850 books on gender, race, and sexuality that “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish,” sending superintendents a letter asking how many copies of these titles remained on school bookshelves and how much had been spent on them. These include renowned titles like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and LGBT Families by Leanne K. Currie-McGhee. 

“The inclusion of references to porn is so unbelievably cynical,” said Daniel HoSang, associate professor of Ethnicity, Race, & Migration and American Studies at Yale. “It conjures up the history of homophobic messages. There have long been sex panic attacks around public schools, which were prevalent in the ’70s and ’80s around early LGBT social movements. But there is something new and distinctive about trying to tie sex panics to anti-racism.”

For a “Texas tough” crowd that likes to deride its opponents on the left as “snowflakes,” keeping students ignorant about history because the truth might make them feel bad seems like a naked contradiction. 

“There needs to be more pushback on the idea that we shouldn’t teach these things because it will make white kids feel bad,” said Kevin Cokley, chair of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Learning things about this country that aren’t positive, learning about how white people in this country have historically treated marginalized and minority communities—that’s painful to hear.”

“If that’s the rationale, does that mean we should avoid teaching about the women’s suffrage movement? Or the Holocaust?” Cokley added. “If you extend this logic, it’s not just flawed, but ludicrous.”

Texas Republicans have tried to paint their censorship efforts as a response to parents’ growing concerns, citing isolated examples of parents at school board meetings objecting to sex scenes in books. But lawmakers are riling parents up rather than responding to their concerns. 

“This is not coming from PTAs or local schools themselves,” HoSang said. “Before last year, you can’t see any sense of a grassroots movement in local school districts [to ban books]. It’s misleading to say it’s a response. In most cases, proponents struggle to point to examples.”

The ACLU has tracked book banning in Texas since the late 1990s, when Republicans were knee-deep in another hysteria over the Harry Potter book series. According to its most recent report, school districts in the state challenged 17 books during the 2019-2020 school year. By comparison, the Granbury Independent School District alone pulled at least 125 books for review this year in response to Representative Krause’s directive to public schools. 

HoSang points out that the current censorship wave gives students—who are capable of learning about the history of racism, sexism, or homophobia without feeling blamed for their existence—the short shrift. 

“I’ve yet to meet a parent who says, ‘I want you to lie to my kid.’ Students can deal with complexity and paradox,” HoSang said. Teaching history “doesn’t make broad moral claims about the moral character of the country. It gives them skills they need to deal with many complexities in the world.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated Representative Matt Krause is currently running for attorney general. Krause dropped his bid for attorney general in November to run for district attorney in Tarrant County.