AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Republicans are joining national conservatives in a push to restrict how teachers can talk about race and racism, as well as sex and sexism. In an early morning vote Tuesday, The House gave initial approval to a bill supporters said will strip politics from public education, but that critics call a thinly veiled attempt to whitewash American history. Similar legislation has passed in the Senate in a party-line vote.
House Bill 3979, in part, discourages educators from incorporating current events or “currently controversial issues” into their social studies curricula and limits discussions around race and sex. It would also ban requirements for teachers and administrators to receive training on such topics.
The Republican authors of the proposed legislation argue they want students to be critical thinkers, but what they do not want is for the federal government or local educators to present what GOP members believe is a political agenda.
“The question is, ‘Do you want our Texas kids to be taught that the system of government in Texas, in the United States is nothing but a cover-up for white supremacy?’” said the bill's author Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, when laying out the bill on the House floor Monday.
Under the measure, teachers would also be barred from giving class credit for “political activism” which includes reaching out to state legislators. School districts also would not be able to get private funding on civics and social studies.
During debate on the House floor, Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, said “Why not just trust Texas teachers to make these decisions for their own students in their own classroom?”
In response, Toth said, “We need to start trusting parents to make these decisions for their children and not teachers, it's the responsibility of parents to instill values in their kids.”
Before Meghan Dougherty became an instructional coach of social studies at the Round Rock Independent School District, she was social studies teacher herself for years. Dougherty said she believes it is critical to weave current events into classrooms lessons. She said students are not living in a bubble and has seen how students get more engaged in the material if she ties in issues they care about.
“Our kids are sponges, they know what's going on in the world, so wouldn't it be better to have a professional educator guide them through those conversations and teach them how to have conversations around difficult topics, you know, teach them how to have empathy, and how to ask questions and how to find evidence, and how to listen to other points of view,” Dougherty said.
State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, called the bill broad and heavy-handed. He told Capital Tonight, he is concerned the bill controls what information public school students in Texas are given.
“This very much to me strikes me as an assault on the First Amendment, and also it attempts to take something that's not a problem and turn it into a problem by passing a bill,” Bernal said.
Senators already passed their version, Senate Bill 2202, which is being carried by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.
In a statement to Capital Tonight, Creighton said, “To prepare the next generation, Texas public schools should inspire a love of learning, foster students’ natural curiosity, and provide a strong foundation to understand history from a balanced approach and navigate current events — not require educators push a political agenda.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued a statement endorsing the Senate version after its passage and said, in part, Texans reject “‘woke’ philosophies that maintain that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” He called such concepts divisive with no place in Texas schools.
As for Dougherty, she said she believes Republican lawmakers are undervaluing the perspectives students can bring into the classroom. She said the foundational documents, history, and civics cannot be divorced from student’s experiences and current affairs.
“The first three words in the constitution are ‘we the people,’ and I think that the most important thing that we can do to civics education is teach kids your voice has power, and that you have a role in our democracy to speak up,” she said. “Students will be losing an amazing opportunity to learn what it means to be a citizen of a democracy firsthand.”