I know parents are asking themselves this question today: As a parent concerned about the safety of my child at school how do I get involved?
I know many are feeling helpless to effect change. Following the tragedy of Uvalde, I have heard comments from elected officials, the public and news media that we should secure every campus in the country.
In the Texas Education Code adopted in 1995 which bears my name as a co-sponsor, we attempted to change the mindset of education in an important way. Texas is one of the largest school systems in the world with great diversity in a large state — rural, urban, sparse, small, large, and fast growth. Prior to 1995, the mindset of educators and public was in order for a school district to act you needed state permission. Or, as I often heard, “We would like to do this for our students but the State will not let me.” The Education Code was drafted for the opposite effect, although it is still not well understood.
A school district is empowered in Texas to take any action necessary to protect its students and create a safe environment. The purpose of this column is not to criticize or shift blame to any local school district, but rather, to inform parents and the public of where the quickest involvement for change may occur.
It is impossible to know where and what form of tragedy will occur in advance, but in response to this issue the public needs to know where to begin to voice concerns and action. We have school campuses in our state that have fences, one controlled entrance, security forces, doors to classrooms that lock to the outside automatically and more. We have campuses with little to no security —all depending on the community-recognized needs.
If, as a state, we would have mandated specific security measures, then every campus, regardless of community needs or desires would have had to comply. Instead, authority exists in local school boards and communities to take appropriate steps. The needs of a district in Dallas or Houston may not be deemed necessary in every community, but the authority to take action already exists.
If a community needs additional funding, clearly the state could provide funding to every school district and require it to be used in a certain way, or a local district could raise funds for a specific purpose. The difference is, as a state, do we require every school district to do the same thing or do we give flexibility to local to meet its individual needs?
One policy decision is clear. If it is mandated on a local community to take specific action, it is often met with an outcry against state mandates. Whereas, if a local community decides it needs certain action from the local public, it is generally embraced as a community interest. So, the Education Code was enacted with the basic provision that, unless the state interjects itself into every local district on a specific subject matter, then the local district is empowered to take all necessary steps to educate and keep students, teachers and school district personnel safe.
Federal background checks for gun owners, restrictions on gun ownership, and other topics may, in fact, require state and federal governments to act, but campus security authority already exists in Texas.
Clearly, the state could mandate every single campus have barbed wire linked prison-style fences, a single entrance, a manned and trained security staff, surveillance equipment, educator training in gun safety, bulletproof windows, doors and so on and could stipulate the funding for these but I still believe those decisions are best made at the community. Action by the state would require a special legislative session called by the governor or wait until the legislature meets again in 2023. If a parent wants action quickly, these solutions do not help for tomorrow or even next year.
Education historically has been primarily a state issue. There are many good policy arguments why it should be, not the least of which is the ability of individual parents to enact change and be involved in the education of their children.
While many people can attend the local school board meeting or even travel to a state capital to voice their concerns, few could travel to our nation’s capital. State government and the federal government action necessarily moves like a huge battleship affecting everything in its wake.
Education often needs to be as nimble as a speed boat to deal with local concerns. The public will not wait on the safety of our children for the next legislative session or the federal government in this very diverse country to act.
The parents will leave the public school system if we believe our children are not safe. As a parent, if you want to be involved, the local school board is the place to start.
Paul Sadler is a former state representative from Rusk County and the former chairman of the House Public Education Committee. He’s a lawyer in private practice, and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.