Parent turned activist David Walls testified before the state’s Senate Education Committee Wednesday, that after the Austin Independent School District adopted a controversial curriculum teaching elementary-age children to question their biological gender, parents had little access to review the materials.
“In the lead up to this curriculum, the district gave parents one in-person meeting opportunity to view the curriculum, and that was in the last week of school,” said Walls. “They provided one copy of the curriculum for about 50 parents, myself included, to fight over in a limited amount of time.”
Walls’ testimony was in relation to legislation introduced by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) clarifying that parents are entitled to review sex education curriculum materials, but many parents say there is insufficient transparency and accountability in the entire process districts use to select such programs.
At the crux of the issue are School Health Advisory Councils (SHAC), which were created by the legislature in 1995 to allow for local control on the teaching of sensitive health topics. According to the Texas Education Code, the councils assist school districts “in ensuring that local community values are reflected in the district’s health education instruction.”
The councils meet and make recommendations to public school boards for the adoption of health-related curriculum, but ambiguities within the legal description have created confusion over how SHAC members are selected and how accessible and transparent proceedings are to parents and the community.
Melissa Beckett, a parent in San Antonio’s North East Independent School District (ISD), told The Texan the district’s SHAC proceedings have often been closed to the public and that the elected board of trustees is merely “rubber-stamping” members selected by ISD administrators and council recommendations after the fact and with little discussion.
“The board sometimes approves members of the SHAC eight months after SHAC meetings and deliberations have taken place,” said Beckett. “Both the membership and the final SHAC annual reports are then approved as part of a general consent vote without any question.”
Beckett explained that her district’s SHAC members were selected by the district’s director of physical education and health rather than the board of trustees as prescribed by law. In some years, the district also appointed a “student SHAC” and consequently closed meetings to the public, purportedly to protect the identities of underage participants.
During at least one meeting, North East ISD board members approved SHAC membership and the SHAC annual report as part of the general consent agenda, and without deliberation or debate except for one question about racial diversity. In Leander ISD, parents have noted that SHAC meetings have been conducted via a private Zoom call and have not been available for public viewing or participation.
While members of the SHACs are not elected officials, the Texas attorney general’s handbook states that if a governmental body “routinely adopts” or “rubber stamps” the advisory committee’s recommendations, “the committee probably will be considered to be a governmental body subject” to open meetings laws.
So far this legislative session, two separate bills addressing SHAC transparency have been approved by the Senate and referred to House committees for consideration.
Senate Bill (SB) 347, authored by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) and co-authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) would make SHACs explicitly subject to the Open Meetings Act, which is designed to provide public access to meetings of governmental bodies. Key provisions of the act require posting of subject matter prior to meetings, allowing members of the public to attend, and keeping minutes or recordings of all meetings.
Paxton’s bill would add SHACs to portions of Texas law regarding open meetings and public information, and has been referred to the House Committee on Public Education. A similar bill introduced by Rep. Lacey Hull (R-Houston), House Bill 3089, would also require SHACs to comply with the Open Meetings Act, but embeds the provisions in the Education Code.
Running afoul of open meetings requirements can lead to lawsuits and criminal indictments, and recently a Tarrant County grand jury indicted two members of the Carroll ISD Board of Trustees for alleged conspiracy to circumvent prohibitions against secret deliberations.
The Senate has also passed Sen. Bryan Hughes’ (R-Mineola) SB 442, which revises language in the Texas Education Code regarding SHACs and specifically outlines transparency and accountability provisions for the councils.
SB 442 mirrors provisions of the open meetings act in requiring SHAC meetings to be open to the public, mandating that meeting notices and subject matter must be posted at least 72 hours in advance, and for audio or video recordings and detailed minutes to be publicly posted following meetings.
Additionally, under SB 442 members of the public would have to be permitted to comment to the board of trustees following SHAC curriculum recommendations and prior to the board’s vote to approve or reject the recommendation.
SB 442 also clarifies that every member of a SHAC must be appointed by the district’s board of trustees, since some districts have been allowing school administrators to select members. The legislation further seeks to prevent so-called “rubber-stamping” of SHAC recommendations by stipulating that the board “shall” ensure that the curriculum materials are:
- Based on the advice of the local SHAC
- Suitable for the subject and grade level for which the curriculum materials are intended
- Reviewed by academic experts in the subject and grade level for which the materials are intended
SB 442 has been referred to the House Committee on Public Health. A companion bill filed by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) has also been referred to the same committee, but neither has been scheduled for a hearing.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.