Southlake Carroll schools made headlines for partisan clashes in 2021. This book examines why.

In “They Came for the Schools,” Mike Hixenbaugh explores how the fight over books and classroom material became “the playbook copied all over the country.”

By Sarah AschMay 16, 2024 2:12 pm, ,

The Carroll Independent School District, located in the wealthy Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, made headlines starting in 2021 when parents pushed the district to ban certain books from classrooms and libraries.

Many school districts in the Lone Star State faced an uptick in book challenges around this time, but Southlake Carroll was among those that directed teachers to remove books from their classrooms.

Mike Hixenbaugh, a senior investigative reporter for NBC News, covered the news out of Southlake schools as it unfolded. His new book, “They Came for the Schools,” offers further insight into his reporting and was released on May 14.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

Texas Standard: Can you take us back to 2021 in Southlake? Set the scene for us. What was going on in the district before the book challenges started rolling in, and how did those challenges play out?  

Mike Hixenbaugh: Well, Southlake was really on a leading edge of this nationwide fight over not just books, but just classroom material broadly that dealt with race, gender and sexual orientation.

And so Southlake had been working to implement a diversity plan in the years leading up to 2020, in an attempt to help the mostly white student body there understand how to interact with people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and races. And what we were seeing in 2021, in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests in Southlake and other places, was a backlash.

And so that’s what I document in the book. And what I really was hoping to do with the book was to expand on the reporting so that anyone who’s living in a community in Texas or across the country, where they’ve seen parents packing school board meetings, challenging books or lesson plans, they would have a sense and understanding of why that’s happening.

I hear what you’re saying, that Southlake is emblematic of what was happening elsewhere. But how much is Southlake different from some of the other districts that had similar complaints from parents – and not just in Texas, but around the country? Why focus your reporting on Southlake, where everything seemed to be very much stirred up? 

Southlake wasn’t just a proxy for what was happening. It ended up becoming like a cautionary tale, or a model that was copied across the country.

And so one of the reasons I ended up spending all this time and writing a whole book on this was after the backlash in Southlake made national attention, the political playbook that was kind of pioneered there in 2021 was copied in suburbs and exported to suburbs all over the country.

Southlake conservative activists and parents formed a PAC called Southlake Families PAC and raised a bunch of money and kind of went to war to win school board seats on these anti-critical race theory talking points. We then saw copycat PACs like Lake Travis Families PAC or Spring Branch Families PAC, Williamson Families PAC in Tennessee.

Southlake wasn’t just kind of an example of this happening. It became a model that was literally the playbook copied all over the country.

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You say “cautionary tale,” and I’m curious — there are a lot of members of those PACs that you were talking about there who would say, “hey, I mean, this isn’t a cautionary tale. This, if anything, is instructions for how to get your school system back.” After years of going in another direction, a direction that these parents don’t like.

Depending on your perspective, it’s either a cautionary tale or, as I said, a model to be copied and to be emulated. And so some folks are pointing to it as a cautionary tale, because Southlake’s also a place that is facing eight federal investigations for civil rights violations.

And just last week, we broke the news that the federal Education Department had substantiated allegations of students’ civil rights being violated in Carroll, and the district is now facing the prospect of having to do some of the same work that the community rejected.

It’s also a community where they’ve been in the national spotlight over and over, maybe most famously when a school administrator trying to comply with some of these restrictions instructed teachers to show opposing perspectives on the Holocaust in their classroom libraries.

People who are opposed to this say this is a cautionary tale; they’re pointing to those things. And also the way that bringing this national level partisan political strategy to local school boards, they point to the way it has really divided the community, and in some ways turned neighbors into enemies.

What do you consider to be the big takeaway from this experience reporting on Southlake? You mentioned how there seemed to be this ideological divide, which obviously was, further sort of cast as a kind of political divide. What else there can one tease out of what happened in Southlake?

This is ostensibly a fight about local school politics and curriculum. But really, it’s a proxy struggle for something much bigger. And it’s about who we are as a country, really.

And there’s a reason that this fight is playing out in schools, because this is the place where we teach the next generation about what’s good and what’s right and what’s true about our history, and which chapters of our history are worth reflecting on and and how we frame the chapters in our history.

But as a result of that, this kind of turning schools into a political battleground, what gets drowned out in that conversation are the students who are in this generation, going to these schools, trying to learn. And in some ways, they’ve gotten an education of a different sort by sitting back and watching as adults in their community kind of turn on each other and turn these local discussions into really ugly attacks, where in some cases were accusing teachers, baselessly, of being sexual predators or wanting to groom children.

And that ugliness that the students are seeing, it’s also shaping what they think about who we are as a country and a people.

What’s happening in Southlake now? I know a lot of these contentious arguments over books, in particular, seem to have sort of become second-, third-page stories when we see them at all, really. Where do things stand?

The Southlake Families PAC was successful in taking over complete control of the school board. So they have all seven seats there, and they have rolled back any changes that were implemented prior to their taking control — rolling back changes to the student code of conduct that were meant to fight back against what was described as a culture of racist bullying in the school district.

And you’re right these fights aren’t leading headlines anymore. But these things continue to happen. These fights are playing out in every school board election cycle across the state. Just this past week, Cypress-Fairbanks, the third largest school district in Texas, voted to censor textbook chapters dealing with climate change and other issues that they said were controversial.

And so even as we turn our attention away from these issues, and maybe you’re focused on Donald Trump’s trial in Manhattan, these fights that really kicked off in 2021, in Southlake, Texas, are rippling across the country and affecting what kids learn about in their classrooms. 

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