When the governing body of the Texas Boys Choir and Singing Girls of Texas proposed handbook changes that would require students to provide birth certificates and audition only for groups that match their sex assigned at birth, some parents pushed back.
School board members of the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, also known as FWAFA, said they would promptly send out a survey before the end of the school year. Board members said they wanted to give people who might not feel comfortable speaking out at a public meeting the chance to weigh in.
A draft of the survey was ready the next day, on May 10, but the version that was sent out almost a month later was markedly different.
The survey had grown to 66 questions long and asked questions about views on immigration, energy policy and national security. For that reason, many parents said they skipped questions or didn’t answer the survey at all, making the results hard to parse.
The board eventually voted to move ahead with the proposed changes, prompting a civil rights complaint in August.
Wanda Bonder, a parent at the school, said she felt nauseated when reading the survey and the subsequent letter with its results. The Report requested and obtained the survey results through a public records request.
“Our school is a magical place,” Bonder said. “It’s not the place for this type of political battle.”
How the surveys compare
Both surveys started with an overview of why the survey was being sent and asked participants about their affiliation to the school and how they identified politically.
The draft survey focused on whether an unaltered birth certificate should be required to audition or join the choirs and the potential effects of allowing or not allowing kids to audition for a group that does not match their sex assigned at birth.
Participants were also asked how this decision might affect their child’s enrollment at the school, staff retention, volunteerism and donations.
In total, the first draft of the survey was 22 questions, all of which were either directly related to the proposed changes or the demographics of the person taking the survey.
The survey was subject to approval from the Texas Center for Arts and Academics board, also called TCA+A, which oversees the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts.
The final version of the survey, sent to parents, guardians, faculty and staff, was three times as long.
The 66-question survey covered a variety of topics, from proposed changes to the choral handbooks to opinions on participants’ level of trust with the federal government, religious leaders and social media.
The survey also inquired about threats to national security, the delivery and cost of health care, the state of the economy and undocumented immigration.
In a message sent out to “The Entire TCA+A family,” school board chair Daniel Bates, a Fort Worth attorney, acknowledged that some of the topics in the survey might not have matched the participants’ expectations.
“The Board is routley presented and considers a much wider variety of subjects than choir memberships,” he wrote. “The broader survey was intended solely to better inform the Board about the TCA+A community’s views and preferences on a wider range of subjects.”
Last year, about 400 students enrolled in the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Art. Their parents and faculty and staff at the school received the survey.
Ultimately, 480 people responded to the first survey question, but from Bates’ note it is clear the board had hoped for more engagement.
“Greater survey participation would have provided more data, but the Board is grateful for the information the survey supplied and gives thanks to all participants,” he wrote.
Several factors make the results difficult to break down.
There were several questions where more than 300 respondents, or just over 60% of participants, declined to answer.
The survey was intended to gauge the opinions of parents, guardians and school administration, faculty and staff — but anyone with the link was able to answer.
Further complicating the results, individuals were encouraged not to fill out the survey more than once, but it was still possible to do so.
Responses to the open-ended questions offered a little more insight into why some of the respondents either supported or opposed changes to the handbook.
When asked to “Please give specifics on what effect, if any, maintaining the traditional boy-only membership of the Texas Boys Choir would have on FWAFA students, parents/guardians, and faculty/staff” nearly 350 skipped the question and just over 130 responded.
Of those who responded, some stated plainly, “none,” while others said, “Boys are boys. Girls are girls” and another said, “continuation of a unique and beautiful tradition.” But several expressed a different view.
“Students would feel left out/excluded. Taught that excluding people based on gender is OK.” Another offered, “The inability to participate in a choir that matches their gender identity could drive students depression, anxiety, self harm, suicidal ideation and behavior,” among other listed mental health concerns.
Though the survey results were not discussed at the school board’s June meeting, the board voted 4-2 to update the language in the handbook. Students must now submit a birth certificate before auditions and are eligible to join only the group that matches their sex assigned at birth.
At the school board’s public meeting in June multiple parents raised concerns about the survey, including Michelle Steele.
Steele said that the survey was inappropriate and an inadequate tool for registering the sincere concerns and opinions of the school’s families.
“Regardless of the survey outcomes, the school board has an obligation to uphold policy not on the basis of majority vs minority,” she said. “Rather, the policy should be judged for whether it results in even one student being excluded from their right to equal access to educational opportunities at our school.”
Karen Mueller addressed the board not just as a staff member but also as a parent. In her three minutes at the microphone, she said a dialogue would have been more productive than the survey.
“If you and I were to have a conversation, I would ask you, ‘Do you think transgender people are making things up? Do you think they are just getting attention? Do you think that they have been influenced by some level of media or society?’” Mueller said. “And if you answered yes, then you haven’t talked to a transgender student directly.”
In a phone interview, Bonder said she and a group of concerned parents felt the survey was biased and was political in nature.
Several parents decided to skip questions that didn’t directly deal with the topic at hand, which can be seen throughout the results sent to families.
“The way that I feel about the energy crisis has nothing to do with whether or not our board has broken Title IX regulations,” she said.
In his July note to parents, school board president Bates said neither group got exactly what it wanted but hoped that the Texas Center for Arts and Academics family could show mutual respect and unify moving forward.
“Common ground of compromise exists where no segment of the TCA+A Family obtains all desired results. Students with requisite talent may continue to sing in TBC (Texas Boys Choir) and SGT (Singing Girls of Texas) choirs, according to their biological sex, while identifying as a different social gender,” he wrote.
He added, “Those supporting adoption of social genders, different from biology, embrace the opportunity to sing in TBC (Texas Boys Choir) or SGT (Singing Girls of Texas), consistent with biological sex, or in a mixed choir; but cease and desist attempting to impose their view on those believing it is best to continue the traditions and brands of TBC and SGT, unchanged.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is representing one family who disagrees. On Aug. 10, the organization announced it filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for gender discrimination.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.