AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Among the vast number of bills relating to public education that passed through the Texas State Legislature in 2021 was House Bill 25, a measure that set restrictions banning student-athletes from joining sports teams according to their gender identity instead of their sex listed on their earliest birth certificate. Not only has the law raised objections from civil rights advocates who describe it as blatant discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth, but a trend has appeared regarding how the policy is spoken about by a range of education officials: No one has seemed willing, or able, to explain how the law will be enforced day-to-day.

MyHighPlains.com reached out once again to the Amarillo and Canyon Independent School Districts regarding the law, as well as officials with the University Interscholastic League (UIL) and Texas Education Agency (TEA):

  • Amarillo ISD replied, “Whatever a student’s birth certificate states is what is used for participatory purposes in Amarillo ISD athletics.”
  • Canyon ISD officials said that the district did not wish to make a statement on the situation currently, nor in the “near future.”
  • UIL officials replied, “The UIL expects all member schools to be in compliance with state law and UIL eligibility rules. We know that schools have systems in place to comply with state law as they have always done.”
  • The TEA directed MyHighPlains.com to the UIL regarding the policy.

Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune reported a similar response (or lack thereof) from school districts, either being assured that officials will work to follow UIL guidelines or receiving either no response or a decline for interviews regarding the new law.

“It’s new ground, so some of it will be learning as we go,” UIL Deputy Director Harrison said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “But UIL does not have an investigative arm outside of its member school committees. We don’t have a bunch of black Suburbans and earpieces and guys going around checking birth certificates, that’s not the way it works. At the end of the day, the schools are going to have to do the best they can to make sure they’re in compliance with the law.”

While working to understand HB 25 and why answers to enforcement questions might have become so elusive, MyHighPlains.com has compiled context on its history, its technicalities, and a few points that could prevent Texas schools from following the letter of the law.

Part I || Existing UIL policy

Although the new Texas law goes farther than its predecessor, the UIL introduced a rule in 2016 that said it would consider a high school student-athlete’s gender officially determined by their birth certificate. However, the 2016 UIL policy allowed students to join sports teams according to their gender identity if their birth certificate and/or other official identification documents had been legally changed.

The policy went on to weigh heavily on the experiences of Texas student-athletes such as Mack Beggs, who rose to prominence in 2017 and 2018 during his time at Trinity High School in Euless. As a transgender man whose birth certificate had not been legally changed at the time, Beggs was required to compete in the girls’ wrestling division. Two of his girl opponents in the 2017 state tournament chose to forfeit rather than face him in the ring, in protest to the situation.

Meanwhile, Beggs ranked among the best in wrestling throughout his entire career in high school athletics, competing against girls in UIL events and also in the men’s division in non-UIL competitions. Later, Beggs went on to compete on the men’s team as a college student.

Stories such as Beggs’ not only call into question the logic of the birth certificate policy on a social and scientific level, but also in regards to practicality. Transgender athletes in the Texas school system, while open and communicative about their identities, have been left adrift in a sea of inconsistent and highly contested regulations, and their coaches and teachers have been left adrift trying to make sense of the jumbling of a population of students.

House Bill 25 took the UIL regulation and tacked on additional technicalities that have made an already complex situation more complicated.

Part II || The text of the bill

The official policy text of House Bill 25 was splite into two main points, each with their own circumstantial additions:

  • A student in a Texas public school or open-enrollment charter school may not be allowed to join a UIL athletic team that is designated for a sex other than what is noted on an official birth certificate or other government record.
    • If a team designated for female students is not available, female students may be allowed to join an available male-designated UIL team.
  • An official birth certificate record of sex is only considered correct if the is it is a version created “at or near the time of the student’s birth” or modified to correct “any type of scrivener or clerical error in the student’s biological sex.”

While the first point is like the 2016 UIL policy, the second has presented a number of technical issues regarding birth certificates and identification documents, records of legal changes to those documents, and the availability of those documents to school officials.

Birth records are stored within the files of state health departments in the US, rather than federally. The ways in which those records are handled and the regulations about what information they include and who may access them in what ways are dependent upon which US state or territory holds them.

In Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) handles birth records. According to DSHS information, birth certificates in Texas come in two common forms:

  • Long Form Birth Certificate
    • The most comprehensive form of birth record. It is a copy of the original birth certificate, and shows a history of corrections that have been made to the birth record. These are required to obtain:
      • A US Passport
      • A Driver’s license (in most US states, not all)
      • Dual citizenship
  • Short Form Birth Certificate
    • A certified “abstract” of the birth record. This shows the current information for the person’s name, date of birth, place of birth, sex, and name of parent(s). It does not show a history of corrections. These birth certificates are used for:
      • School and sports registration
      • Employment requirements
      • Insurance requirements

The text of the bill necessitates that school administrators not only have access to a birth certificate or other government document with a notation on sex, but that school administrators also have access to a record of any changes made to those documents. However, long-form birth certificates not only cost money to obtain but can only be requested in Texas by the person in question or immediate family members. Further, if a student does not have access to a long-form birth certificate for any reason, other acceptable government identification documents for school or sports registrations do not commonly provide a record of changes.

Because of this, it is unclear whether or not a school would be considered “in compliance” with House Bill 25 if students unable to provide a long form birth certificate or a receipt of other government document changes (or lack thereof) would be unable to register for UIL sports teams. Further, the bill did not mention whether or not all students currently enrolled in a UIL athletic program already would need to undergo an audit of their records in order to ensure those documents had not been changed before joining.

According to the UIL website and parent handbook, the forms required for eligibility of participation of a student do not include mention of a birth certificate being necessary, nor what kind, nor acceptable alternatives. Even with the current UIL policy resources and pre-standing rules from 2016, those instructions now apparently necessary for both schools and individuals to comply with HB 25 did not appear available.

The Department of Justice previously established that it is against Federal law for a school district to ask about a child’s citizenship or immigration status to establish district residency, and may not discourage or prevent a child from attending or enrolling in school because of a lack of a birth certificate. Because of that, school records themselves do not assuredly have birth certificates – let alone longform birth certificates – for all students enrolled. Because a longform birth certificate is not required in order to enroll in school, and is not clearly required in readily-available UIL policy documents, it is not clear how a school district will be expected to consistently verify that whatever identification document a student might use for registration has not been changed.

Alongside the technical difficulty that the birth certificate aspect of the law presents, both the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Education have enforced that Title IX protects LGBTQI+ students and stands to prevent discrimination based on factors such as sexual orientation or gender identity. The two federal departments explicitly used denying a transgender student membership to a sports team based on gender identity as an example of discrimination violating Federal law.

Part III || Texas schools, between a rock and a hard place

All of the historical context and technical difficulties presented by House Bill 25 may have only added another “lose-lose” situation to the long list of struggles Texas public schools have faced over the last few years.

From one angle, public schools across Texas have been straining under the weight of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, which has not only presented its own unique problems but exacerbated preexisting struggles. Whether a school district is working to provide masking and testing to its students and staff, bending to follow social distancing practices, or attempting to adapt school content for remote learning – if their district even qualifies for remote learning opportunities in the first place – the virus has shaken the public education infrastructure as a whole.

Only made worse by the pandemic is the ongoing shortage of teachers and other staff. Whether or not the absences are directly contributed to COVID-19, school districts in the High Plains and across the country have canceled extracurricular events and shut down campuses for days at a time because of a lack of teachers, substitutes, and staff such as bus drivers and janitors. Canyon ISD and Amarillo ISD have launched campaigns to recruit more substitute teachers, and even hiked up the pay, but the issue has not yet been resolved. As recently as this week, River Road High School closed its campus on Friday due to COVID-19, as well as Pampa and Bovina ISD.

Texas public schools have also recently been a prime target for the ire of state officials such as Governor Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Representatives Matt Krause and Jeff Cason, and others. From the incorrect narrative that public school libraries have distributed inappropriate content to children, to the trend among politicians to denounce Critical Race Theory and accuse schools of promoting the critical framework, to arguments about the free speech rights of parents versus the physical security of school board members, Texas public education officials may be forced to evaluate which battles to risk with the state, and where.

Public education in Texas is primarily funded between local taxes and the state budget. However, despite the majority of public education funding currently being provided through local property taxes, and Amarillo’s property values seeing a significant increase in recent years, the property tax rate has been lowered and new restrictions on how public schools can be funded were also passed through the Texas legislature. This has meant that to make up for the growing gaps between what funding exists and what funding is needed, school districts have needed to increasingly look towards the state.

Because of that, the pressure could be on more than ever for Texas public schools to avoid further accusations of not complying with state law, or else risk state officials once again taking the ways local teachers and administrators educate and provide resources to students to task. Aside from the individual consequences and the risk of sanctions and funding costs on a state level, as well, the UIL itself could sanction and otherwise punish schools perceived to not be following policies such as HB 25.

With that in mind, complying with HB 25 to the letter also seems to present its own challenges. If Texas schools enforce HB 25 they risk federal lawsuits, investigations, and other backlash from the federal government on the grounds of what may be argued as a discriminatory policy. It also may not only be implausible, or even impossible, for schools to verify the information necessary to follow the letter of the law but also could require an indefinite amount of money, staff, and time – all three of those being critical resources that Texas public schools do not appear to have.

Part IV || So, what now?

Whether in meaning to comply with HB 25 to the letter, idly enforce the birth certificate policy, or not spend the time and resources on following the legislation, the burden the bill presents to Texas public school districts could be shown in the hesitation of many officials to talk on the subject.

However, what the future of HB 25 will look like and how it will look in the day-to-day lives of students and staff in many aspects remains to be seen. How will staff in local school campuses approach vetting their student-athletes? Will, like in some other states, there be lawsuits filed in relation to the bill? How strictly will the UIL, let alone state officials, monitor how districts approach compliance? The situation has joined the long list of those regarding systems such as education and healthcare that is still developing.

  • For LGBTQ+ mental health support, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. Trained counselors can also be reached through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.
  • The Amarillo Public Library is accessible in person, and its and digital resources are available with a student ID or a free library card. Services focused on jobs, businesses, English as a second language, community service, and education are also available alongside pieces of literature and other media.
  • The Amarillo League of Women Voters has data and resources available from basic information on local elections, voting rights, and programs regarding membership and other ways for a person to be involved in their community.
  • The US Department of Education provides resources on federal education law, grant opportunities, student resources, and education-related data and research.