Bill Guts Local Control, Would Give Texas AG Authority to Close Down School Districts by Fiat

by Dan Quinn

UPDATE, 4:40 p.m.: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office just released a formal opinion calling the Pflugerville Independent School District’s policy of offering domestic partners of district employees access to health insurance benefits a violation of the Texas Constitution.

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Just what in the world are they thinking?

Earlier this month the House Public Education Committee considered legislation (House Bill 1568) to reduce funding to any school district that makes health insurance or other benefits available to the domestic partners of district employees. The Pflugerville Independent School District just north of Austin has adopted such a policy, although the employee has to cover the full cost of his or her partner’s insurance premiums. Religious-right groups — predictably — have pitched a hissy fit and argue that providing access to benefits for domestic partners violates the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

The Texas attorney general has not yet issued a formal opinion on whether such policies really do violate that constitutional ban. Even so, the original version of HB 1568 was bad enough — it would undermine local control, was out of step with growing support among Texans for such common sense policies, and represented yet another effort to denigrate and demean gay and lesbian families. But last week the Public Education Committee passed a completely rewritten version of the bill that’s even worse. The new version would give the Texas attorney general the power to force the closure of any school district that he or she determines has “knowingly violated a provision of the Texas Constitution.” Here’s the key part of the bill:

“If the attorney general determines that a school district knowingly violated a provision of the Texas Constitution, the commissioner shall revoke the accreditation of the district and order the closure of the district.”

So just one elected official would have the power of life or death over a school district. The attorney general — alone — would be able to decide whether the state must shut down a school district. The bill offers no route for appeal, although a local school district so targeted by the AG would almost certainly go to court in an attempt to stop such a decision. Just imagine the cost to taxpayers. And what if the courts found that such action by an attorney general was constitutionally permissible? Suddenly, thousands of children would be left without schools because of the arbitrary decision of one state official.

And, of course, it would be an arbitrary decision. First, there is hardly agreement that what the Plugerville and Austin school districts have chosen to do violates the Constitution. But consider many other actions — on issues ranging from free speech to religious freedom and beyond — that could bring an attorney general to rule a school district in violation of the state Constitution. One can easily imagine an AG from whichever political party being tempted to abuse that power for one reason or another.

Maybe this was just a clumsy effort to strip the bill of overt gay-bashing. But good grief. This would be colossally bad public policy.

The Public Education Committee approved the bill on a 6-4, party-line vote. All of the “yes” votes came from Republicans. The four “no” votes are Democrats.

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