AUSTIN, Texas – State senators in Texas are considering legislation that would expand recently passed restrictions on social studies courses in public grade schools, despite concerns from educators and the absence of most Texas House Democrats that has brought lawmaking in that chamber to a halt.
It’s the latest GOP push to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, a framework used to examine racism in colleges and universities that has become a Republican catch-all term for what some see as divisive efforts to address racism and inequity in schools.
During the regular legislative session that ended in May, Republicans rallied to pass House Bill 3979, which limits how teachers can discuss race and current events in social studies courses and bars them from awarding students course credit for social or political advocacy work.
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The new law, slated to go into effect in September, says teachers may not be compelled to discuss current events or controversial topics of public policy. If they do discuss such a topic, they must explore it from “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”
But Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back to the Capitol on July 8 to work on Republican priorities left pending after House Democrats’ walkout at the end of the regular session.
As part of the special session agenda, Abbott asked lawmakers to continue the work started in HB 3979.
Divided along party lines Friday, the Senate gave final approval to Senate Bill 3, a broad measure expanding HB 3979’s restrictions to any subject in grades K-12, including ethnic studies courses.
It was passed on an 18-4 vote, with nine Democrats absent while in Washington, D.C., to join House Democrats in a protest over GOP voting bills. The House, however, cannot accept SB 3 due to a lack of quorum in the lower chamber.
Senate Bill 3 expands HB 3979’s restrictions on how teachers can discuss race and current events beyond social studies courses to any subject for grades kindergarten through 12th grade.
In response to concerns about HB 3979’s restrictions on course credit for political advocacy volunteer opportunities, the bill clarifies students could engage in nonpartisan, community-based projects such as work with community gardens and food banks as part of classes.
SB 3 also requires teaching the country’s founding documents, “excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,” the transcript of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and other texts, while maintaining a ban on the 1619 Project, an initiative from The New York Times examining the role and legacy of slavery in the founding of the United States.
Keven Ellis, chair of the State Board of Education, told lawmakers he did not believe the bill would ban anything in the curriculum standards adopted by the board, including for its courses on African American and Mexican American studies. But he suggested adding an amendment to clarify that.
“We will continue to bring forward those courses and teach that history,” Ellis said of the state’s ethnic studies courses, noting the board has also called for courses focusing on Native Americans and Asian-Pacific Islanders.
Renee Blackmon, president of the Texas Council for the Social Studies, told the Austin American-Statesman she appreciated the effort to invest in civics education but noted opportunities for students to be engaged in civics could remain limited under the restrictions against student advocacy.
“We might be taking some steps towards some good civics education, but it won’t be as robust as it could be,” she said.
Chuck Lindell contributed to this report.