Texas schools embroiled in federal dispute over LGBTQ+ rules

Texas school districts are in limbo as state and federal politicians issue conflicting policies on new protections for LGBTQ+ students.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has ordered school districts to ignore the Biden administration's new rules related to Title IX, the federal discrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal rules would require schools to investigate allegations of such discrimination.

School districts must update their policies to comply with the new rules by August 1, when they take effect. But Paxton's order and similar opposition from Gov. Greg Abbott (both Republicans) put districts in a bind: either follow federal rules issued by Democrats in Washington and risk backlash from state leaders, or ignore the new rules and risk noncompliance with Title IX, which could result in the loss of federal funding.

Texas schools receive about $4 billion in federal funding each year, but it is highly unlikely that there will be drastic cuts immediately after August 1.

Texas lawmakers debated in 2023 whether to force students to use bathrooms and play on sports teams that match their sex assigned at birth. However, lawmakers only passed a law requiring college athletes to play on sports teams that match their sex assigned at birth.

Still, Paxton is suing the Department of Education to block the new rules, arguing that the federal agency does not have the authority to include sexual orientation and gender identity in Title IX protections. The case is pending in federal court in North Texas.

Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017. (AP Photo / Tony Gutierrez)

“If a Texas school district implements a policy or practice that conflicts with or runs counter to state law, I will use every means available to protect students and teachers from these illegal and radical policies,” Paxton wrote in a memo to school districts last week.

Pro-LGBTQ+ organizations and some civil rights activists are welcoming the new rules as much-needed protections for transgender youth and young adults. But conservative leaders of several school districts are sharply criticizing the federal changes, calling them radical and threatening to women.

School board members of Spring Branch ISD, a Houston school district with nearly 34,000 students, unanimously passed a resolution Monday condemning the rules and calling on the state to compensate them if they lose their $56 million in federal funding for violating the law. Trustees passed the resolution without discussion, and school board chairwoman Lisa Alpe was not available for an interview after the meeting.

“There are state laws that conflict with this final (Title IX) rule that put you in an irreconcilable conflict as well,” panel attorney Ellen Spaulding said during Monday's meeting. “This resolution points out the confusion, that there is confusion and conflict, while also reaffirming your commitment not to allow discrimination and harassment and calling on the governor to act.”

Another Spring Branch attitude

Spring Branch's appeal for financial assistance from the state comes after district leaders spent more than a year criticizing Texas lawmakers for putting them in a financial bind by failing to significantly increase public school funding during the 2023 legislative session.

District leaders are cutting their operating budget by around $35 million for the 2023/24 school year by eliminating all librarian positions and closing several schools with predominantly Latino populations, among other things. School Superintendent Jennifer Blaine repeatedly argued that the community backlash should be directed at the state.

A few months earlier, in September 2023, the district took a public stand against the legislature by raising a “come and take it” flag and vowing not to pay millions of dollars in recapture or property tax revenues from “real estate-rich” districts that the state uses to fund other districts.

Parents of Spring Branch Independent School students, stakeholders and community members will gather at district facilities to attend a Spring Branch ISD school board meeting in Houston on Monday, November 6, 2023.Parents of Spring Branch Independent School students, stakeholders and community members will gather at district facilities to attend a Spring Branch ISD school board meeting in Houston on Monday, November 6, 2023.

Nathalie Herpin, a local community organizer and mother of two Spring Branch students, said the trustees were once again posturing and playing “political games” with the state government.

“This committee made a big deal out of recapture, voted loudly to deny recapture, planted a silly flag on the building to prove their point, only to send payment months later,” Herpin said. “Nobody had to come and pick it up. They gave it up voluntarily. Is this the same kind of public display you're making now?”

The discussion of the policy in Spring Branch on Monday drew local attention to the broader debate over whether Title IX protections also cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

Barb Kennedy, a second language English teacher at Northbrook High School, said she wants her classroom to be a safe place for LGBTQ+ children, which led her to question whether the resolution sends the right message to students. She joined about a dozen community members and LGBTQ+ activists who spoke against the resolution during Monday's meeting. None of the participants spoke in favor of it.

“We've lost so much across the district. We've lost all of our librarians. We've lost … schools, two programs,” Kennedy said. “By opposing Biden's changes, like Abbott wants us to do, he hasn't helped us.”

Spring Branch passed a controversial policy late last year requiring students to use school bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex. It is uncertain whether the policy would be legal under the new Title IX rules.

The resolution passed Monday also says district leaders “will be forced to choose whether to comply with Texas law protecting girls' sports or risk SBISD's federal funding.” But the expanded Title IX regulations do not include explicit protections for transgender athletes. The Department of Education says “the rulemaking process for a Title IX provision related to athletics is still ongoing.”

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