Texas: MAGA Lawmakers, Activists Fight for Control of Schools

COLLIN COUNTY, Texas — Michael Phillips is a professor, a 15-year veteran of Collin College in Texas, and the area’s preeminent historian of racial politics and right-wing extremism. At the end of the school year, he’ll also be out of a job.

Phillips says he was summoned to a series of meetings with college administrators in January and February where he was informed his contract would not be renewed. Phillips says his termination was ideologically motivated, punishment for repeatedly advancing political views that fell outside the bounds of what management of the public college would tolerate. In this case, Phillips says, this refers to a history professor who spoke out about Confederate monuments, racist mass shooters, and anti-Covid masks.

Collin College disputes that framing. “Our faculty members sign term contracts that — by operation of law — end in May of their respective terms,” a representative from the college responded in a written statement. “Every year for more than 30 years, Collin College has utilized a faculty contract review process that includes recommendations from multiple supervisory levels.” Asked for specifics on why Phillips’ contract wasn’t renewed and pressed on whether there was any issue with his performance, Collin College did not provide further comment.

Phillips says his nonrenewal follows a string of incidents in which he spoke his mind despite being told not to. In 2017, Phillips co-authored an open letter calling for the removal of Confederate monuments across the region. More than a hundred prominent community members signed the letter and the Dallas Morning News published it. Shortly after the letter was published, Phillips was summoned to a meeting with the provost and dean. “I was told I violated policy because I was identified on the letter as a faculty member at Collin College,” Phillips tells Rolling Stone. “It was really chilling to me. I was told I made the college look bad.”

In 2019, Phillips spoke out about Patrick Crusius, a man from Collin County who’d traveled to El Paso to murder 22 people in a mass shooting at a Walmart. Crusius, who posted anti-immigrant, white-nationalist screed online before the killings, had attended Collin College. Phillips says the administration had specifically warned him not to speak publicly about Crusius and that he was summoned to another disciplinary meeting after his position at Collin College was referenced in an interview, despite Phillips having requested the outlet specifically avoid mentioning his employer.

Then, this school year, Phillips defied the administration’s recently issued ban on talking to students about masks or other public-health measures related to Covid-19. “I went ahead on the first day of class after that announcement and told them I think they ought to wear masks, not just for themselves, but for others,” Phillips says. “That caused me to be summoned to a meeting with my dean and associate dean. They said that allegedly conservative students had complained about making them feel bad by talking about masks. I was given a disciplinary warning, and a few days later, I was told I was not getting recommended for contract renewal.”

Since Phillips announced his termination, several educator groups have published letters criticizing Collin College for the move. And Phillips says the school’s contract system is designed to give administrators political control over their staff. He points to statements made by longtime board member Bob Collins, in 2015, at a public meeting. “With the tenure system, the ultra-liberal, anti-capitalism, socialistic professors want to hire more like them, and we don’t have that here,” Collins said. (Bob Collins did not respond to request for comment.)

Collin College contests that description of the nonrenewal, citing Phillips prior contract renewal in 2019. Nevertheless, Phillips is out of a job, and he says he hasn’t been given an official reason why.

Phillips’ fight with Collin College is part of a broader struggle over education here in the swath of suburbs and exurbs of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, once conservative strongholds that in recent years have become more diverse — racially, culturally, and politically — as business-friendly tax policy draws emigration from across the nation and abroad. But the influx of new people and ideas has produced a backlash: The area was home to an unsettling number of Jan. 6 defendants, and in recent years, Philips says, there has been a resurgence in far-right extremism.

Much of the struggle is playing out in schools. Despite right-wing pundits’ continued braying about “censorship” and “cancel culture,” the local brand of revanchism has pushed to penalize educators who speak their minds and ban books that challenge conventional wisdom or present uncomfortable truths.

At Collin College alone, four professors have been let go amid controversial circumstances over the past two years, including one who lost her job after a mean tweet about Mike Pence. Across the region, at least nine superintendents at public schools have announced plans for resignation in just the past few months, according to The Texas Tribune. In a nearby town, a high school principal made local history as the first Black person in his post — and then lost his job amid a panic over “critical race theory.” Meanwhile, conservative activists push for a mass purge of objectionable reading material from public school libraries.

These are local stories that, together, have national implications. They serve as representative cases of what it looks like when the MAGA movement, having lost power at the national level, establishes effective control over the very institutions that ensure a baseline understanding of political history — local public schools. And in doing so, the movement is able to push out educators and ban books that do not suit its ideological views.

As a MAGA-fied Republican party eyes a return to power in 2022 and 2024, what’s going on in north Texas could prove instructive for the country as a whole. “It’s like America,” Phillips says, “but only more so.”

Days before Collin College administrators informed Phillips of the final decision to not renew his contract, the college settled a lawsuit with Lora Burnett, a history professor who’d been told her contract would not be renewed in February of 2021.

Per Burnett’s telling, she lost her job over a tweet. During the vice-presidential debate in 2020, she’d tweeted that “the moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” The tweet was the subject of an article by Campus Reform, a right-wing website focused on higher education, and then caught the attention of Republican State Rep. Jeff Leach, who, state records reveal, texted Collin College president H. Neal Matkin to ask if she was paid with taxpayer dollars.

Months later, Burnett learned her contract was not being renewed, but it wasn’t her superiors who first informed her of the decision. Burnett initially heard she was being dismissed via a tweet from Leach, who characterized it as a “BIG WIN.”

Shortly thereafter, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed a lawsuit on Burnett’s behalf. In the settlement with Burnett, Collin College agreed to pay $70,000 plus attorney’s fees, but avoided any admission or finding of liability in the matter.

Regarding the settlement, a Collin College spokesperson stated the following. “Although we firmly believe in the lawful decisions made and anticipated a successful court outcome, particularly after two motions to dismiss were filed in the lawsuit, the reality is that the college opted to resolve this litigation expeditiously, with certainty, and, by effectuating an early resolution, in the most fiscally responsible way. We extended a monetary offer to Dr. Burnett and her attorneys, which she accepted. As part of the resolution, the college and its leadership did not admit liability.”

Burnett, to put it mildly, sees it differently: “I can think of a way that you can be more fiscally responsible to the Collin County taxpayer,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Stop violating people’s civil rights and causing people to sue you for violating their rights. That is a win-win.”

In her suit against Collin College, FIRE argued that Burnett’s speech was protected by the First and 14th amendments, given Collin College’s status as a government institution. “You know, if I were employed by a private college, and they had a policy that I had to be nice on Twitter, it’s possible they would have been well within their rights to fire me,” Burnett said. “But I didn’t, I worked for a government institution. And I don’t forfeit my rights as a public citizen to speak up on matters of public concern just because I’m a government employee.”

The contracts of two other faculty members, Suzanne Jones and Professor Audra Heaslip, were also terminated shortly after Burnett’s. This came after they were reprimanded for speaking up amid the Covid-19 pandemic and for working to organize a non-bargaining faculty union. They learned of their terminations the day of the first planned public meeting for the faculty union they were organizing. Both Jones and Heaslip filed grievances after their terminations. Jones currently has a pending free-speech lawsuit against the college and is also represented by FIRE. Heaslip appealed her nonrenewal but was ultimately unsuccessful and chose not to pursue legal action.

The fight over faculty comes as Collin County experiences a surge in pro-Trump extremism, one that is alarming even to some of the area’s ardent Republicans. George Fuller is the mayor of McKinney, a town of around 200,000 that’s the seat of Collin County. He says he started identifying as a Republican during the Reagan years and ran for local office for the first time in 2009. Although he was initially unsuccessful, he later ran for mayor of McKinney and won in 2017.

Mayor George Fuller poses for a photo outside his office in McKinney, Texas, in April 2020.

LM Otero/AP Images

“I’m an old-school Republican,” Fuller says. “Before all the nonsense and divisiveness of the last six years.”

When asked about the state of his party today, he gets agitated. “I think we are at a critical place,” Fuller tells Rolling Stone. “On the one hand, I feel hope, because I think there are some people who know better but they just don’t have the courage to speak out, but at the same time, that makes me feel despair, because we could be on a path to American democracy being taught about in a school in some foreign country as having failed because people were too chickenshit to stand up and say what they know to be the truth.”

Fuller sees Trump’s election as animating a divisive and hateful sort of politics that has come to dominate the Republican Party at a national level. “The candidacy and election of Donald Trump came with a whole idea of how to campaign and how to appeal to the voter,” he says. “And I will tell you that I believe in the last five years, we’ve seen candidates decide that they would rather appeal to the worst in people.”

Education is also a realm where Fuller has seen this sort of politics rear its head in McKinney, where school board meetings have not been spared from MAGA-fication. He recently spoke out at a school board meeting on the subject. “I have watched as a handful of people, regularly speaking during public comments, often representing that they speak for the community as a whole, convey contempt and anger for the actions of this board and our district, attacking the integrity and purity of your mission to serve and educate our children to the greatest standard possible,” Mayor Fuller said at the meeting. “I am here tonight to tell you: They do not speak for the whole of our extremely grateful community.”

Following a heavily politicized school board race in 2021, some 282 books are now being challenged by conservative activists in McKinney, many of them having to do with racism, sexuality, and gender. Some of the concerned parents leading the charge also happen to be political activists in the Republican Party. One of the two parents who filed the challenges is a Republican precinct chair in McKinney, has endorsed multiple anti-CRT politicians, and was the campaign manager for an anti-mask school board candidate.

Fuller says he supports parents’ right to petition the school board to review books they think are inappropriate, particularly if they don’t think it is age appropriate, but he sees this latest push as going beyond well-meaning concern and good-faith debate over what may be viewed as sexually explicit.

Indeed, out of the 282 books raised for review, 23 of them appear to have nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with race and civil rights, such as a book about the Ku Klux Klan. Another 26 on the list include books about Roe v. Wade, transgender rights, LGBT activism, and puberty. And to top it all off, a graphic novel adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.

All of these books come from a list put together by Republican lawmaker Matt Krause, which targets a total of 850 books.

The fate of the McKinney books is still in limbo. The activists intend to continue to press the issue at an upcoming school board meeting, but the final decision lies with the elected school board, who are responsible for overseeing the book-review process.

“School board meetings have become the newest political battleground, where concern for our children seems to have taken a back seat to a political agenda,” Fuller says. “The efforts are often led by radical groups seeking to gain political traction at the expense of our children.”

In 2020, James Whitfield became the first Black principal of Colleyville Heritage High School, in a town in the eastern suburbs of Fort Worth that’s just about an hour drive southwest of Collin County. Less than two years later, Whitfield was placed on administrative leave and told his contract would not be renewed.

James Whitfield, 43, principal at Colleyville Heritage High School in Colleyville, who has been placed on leave by the Garland-Colleyville Independent School District after being accused of teaching critical race theory at his high school, photographed at his home in Hurst, on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Ben Torres for the Texas Tribune

James Whitfield, 43, principal at Colleyville Heritage High School in Colleyville, who has been placed on leave by the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District after being accused of teaching critical race theory at his high school, photographed at his home in Hurst, in September 2021.

Ben Torres/Texas Tribune

Whitfield’s departure comes after he committed what, for some Republicans, is the unforgivable sin: He acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in the United States and the costs it imposes on people of color. And his fate is what it looks like when the radical conservative vocal minority gets its way.

In the days following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, Whitfield wrote a letter to the community communicating the pain he felt over the deaths of Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. He drafted it late one night when he couldn’t sleep and sent it from his official school email address. He says he was initially overwhelmed by the outpouring of positive support. But that letter would come back to haunt him.

A year later, Whitfield was under fire, as a national, Fox News-inflamed panic over Covid masks and “critical race theory” played out. CRT is a graduate-level framework for understanding our current society and its evolution, positing that race and racism are a critical determinant in how things are and how they came to be. But in the national political debate over the term, “critical race theory” now refers to any sort of instruction that acknowledges systemic racism in society. And in the right-wing imagining — with an emphasis on “imaginary — it’s a boogeyman, an institutionalized, anti-white, reverse racism that teaches white children they’re evil.

At a July 26, 2021, school board meeting, Whitfield was accused of pushing CRT at the school. The criticism leveled against him included the usual fare. “We should be teaching American pride not to hate our country and to hate each other.… Will you please be brave and stand against equity and Marxism?” one attendee asked the board, echoing a string of speakers.

Days later, Whitfield reacted via a lengthy Facebook post, linking the panic about CRT to a variety of other “bigoted” and “racist” situations he experienced while teaching in the district.

“For the better part of the last year, I’ve been told repeatedly to just ‘get around the fact that there are some racist people’ and ‘just deal with it and stay positive’ each time the racist tropes reared their heads, but I will stay silent no longer,” Whitfield wrote. “I cannot ask people to speak up if I am unwilling to do so myself, and just because I am a school administrator that does not take away my rights and ability to be human and defend myself.”

Whitfield had his defenders, but the board ultimately caved to the mob, placing on administrative leave in August. Amid a highly public battle between critics and supporters, the board voted unanimously that his contract would not be renewed in September, claiming Whitfield had stoked division and been insubordinate due to this public communication.

The Grapevine-Colleyville school district issued the following statement and has otherwise refused to comment further on the matter: “The Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District and Dr. James Whitfield have been in the media frequently in recent weeks concerning the disputes between them,” the statement reads. “Both the District and Dr. Whitfield each strongly believe they are in the right. However, each also agrees that the division in the community about this matter has impacted the education of the District’s students. In addition, the time, expense, and disruption for both Dr. Whitfield and the District would continue for some time and would further harm the education of District students. The District and Dr. Whitfield have mutually agreed to resolve their disputes.… The District and Dr. Whitfield have agreed this will be their only public statement on this matter.”

“It’s becoming harder and harder to find adjectives to adequately describe what we’re dealing with, it’s that far off the rails,” Whitfield says of the ideological shift in the area. “Board meetings used to be the most boring things, and now they’ve become political lightning rods. It’s insane. We are treading on a dangerous path. And if we don’t organize and get ahead of this, we can expect more of the same results. Because as batshit crazy as they are, they’re organized and funded.”

The way Phillips sees it, the right-wing push to remove books they don’t like from the shelves and cull educators who do not share their view of American history is exactly the sort of thing that happens when the threat of demographic change triggers a reactionary backlash. He points to the early 20th century, when droves of immigrants who were not then considered white — people with last names similar to my own — were pouring into the country in search of the American dream and altering the demographic composition of the nation.

“The initial big pushback in the day to teach people history in public schools came from groups like the American Legion, who were worried about people coming to America they didn’t consider white at the time,” Phillips says. “They were worried about making them ‘American’ so they promoted patriotic education, which basically required subservience to a governing structure that was white supremacist.”

These days, a revanchist MAGA movement in Texas is making a full-court press to instate their vision of “patriotic education.” This means creating an explicitly patriotic curriculum, like the 1836 Project, and disposing of teachers and books that go against it. Just this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced his intention to push for a law that will allow public universities to revoke tenure of any professor caught teaching critical race theory.

What this amounts to is a neo-McCarthyist reshaping of education in order to demand collective adherence to a false reality: Racism is an isolated set of incidents to overcome, America is great and always has been, and any history book or educator that says otherwise is in the thrall of foreign ideologies designed to undercut our greatness.

And it all comes at a time of great change in the area. In 2000, Collin County was 81 percent white. In 2020, that dropped to 69 percent. The demographics of Tarrant County, which includes Colleyville, saw a similar shift over the same period, dropping from 71 percent white in 2000 to 43 percent in 2020. Over the same period, a similar shift took place in the United States, with the percent of the population who identify as only white dropping from 71 percent to 61 percent.

“The long arc of Dallas Fort-Worth suburban history is people fleeing integration of the inner cities,” Phillips says. “They went to the suburbs so they could have their kids in all-white schools and neighborhoods. These were primarily fiscal conservatives who have fought to keep taxes low, which has drawn business investment that is increasingly international. So what originated as an aparthied escape fantasy from the world of color ended up accidentally creating diverse communities because of their economic priorities.”

Now, unable to escape the increasing diversification of their communities, Phillips sees the panic about so-called critical race theory among conservatives and the subsequent culling of dissenting educators as a retreading of what was taught a century ago, when one in every three adults in Dallas were members of the Ku Klux Klan. “Children in the 1920s were specifically taught that the Founding Fathers only intended certain people to rule, and that those without property didn’t work hard or have character and therefore weren’t qualified to govern,” Dr. Phillips said.

As these sort of anti-democratic ideas have taken dominance at the national level, they’ve also taken root in Collin County, if a recent Collin County Conservative Republicans event is any indicator. There, Lara Trump quipped to the crowd that “someone needs to remind Nancy Pelosi the United States is a constitutional republic,” a distinction often made by those seeking to differentiate that from the perceived “mob rule” of more inclusive democratic systems.

“Those old Confederates love the ancient Greek city-states and the Roman Senate,” Phillips says. “But those weren’t democratic institutions that included common people; they were republics ruled by landed, wealthy men. Which is to say there are all kinds of republics. But some republics can be more democratic than others.”