TEXAS — North Texas parents — many of them active in book-banning efforts in their own local school districts — were on hand at the April State Board of Education meeting to protest character education.
Character education is not new in Texas school districts. The education code has been amended at least four times to require schools to incorporate general character traits such as honesty, respect and diligence across the curriculum in all subject areas.
The latest inclusion, Senate Bill 123, was passed during the 2021 legislative session, carried by Sen. Nathan Johnson and Rep. John Turner, both Democrats from Dallas.
“I represent a large group of parents who have great concern about the bill, SB 123,” mother Mary Lowe told the board on April 6. “This bill was kind of slipped under the radar. It went in through local and consent, and there was no floor discussion on the bill.”
The Local and Consent Calendar is reserved for those bills that are considered non-controversial and not likely to require debate. On most days of a legislative session, lawmakers could approve a dozen, or even two dozen, bills at one time, by a voice vote on the floor.
Lowe, disgusted by what she saw being taught during the pandemic, formed the Tarrant County chapter of Moms for Liberty. The private Facebook group, less than a year old, has 1,700 members.
Hollie Plemons is the mother of three children in Fort Worth ISD schools. She, too, asked the SBOE to vote down a policy to incorporate additional character traits into the curriculum.
“I’m shocked that I keep having to remind my school board and lawmakers that my three children are just that. They’re mine,” Plemons told the board. “They don’t belong to the government. They belong to me. I don’t want the government to teach my children character. That’s my job, and it’s a job I want to keep.”
Schools should keep their focus on subjects such as reading and math, Plemons said. “Please stay in your lane,” Plemons said. “Focus on academics, and let the parents parent.”
Parents opposed to the bill are suspicious, in particular, of the nonprofit group CASEL. CASEL, which stands for Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, grew out of the “whole child” education philosophy of the 1990s. The group trains and certifies material that is under the umbrella known as social-emotional learning.
That was a point that SBOE member Pat Hardy, a Republican out of Weatherford, tried to discuss with the speakers at the meeting. Hardy said — and Lowe agreed — that the parents’ concern was more about specific CASEL-endorsed programs rather than the concept of teaching character.
“You know that I feel that we can teach good character traits. That is, in my opinion, doable. And is somewhat the obligation of the school because so many children get short shrift at home,” Hardy told Lowe. But your concern with this bill is not so much the bill, but the fact it requires a program to teacher this whole thing?”
“Absolutely,” Lowe said. “I mean, there are multiple concerns with the bill. And SB 3 was passed after SB 123 was passed. We’re in a crisis where our kids are not performing where they should be. And we are adding a separate time of independent curriculum or instruction that is for character.”
Von Byer, general counsel at the Texas Education Agency, clarified that the education code did not dictate how character traits are taught. A school district could choose to offer a stand-alone course or could use existing books and materials to teach the character trait concepts.
“We’re supposed to develop schools in our children to compare fairness and justice, to demonstrate responsibility and courage when making decisions for the common good of the classroom and community,” father Richard McKenzie told the board. “I’m sorry. When we speak of all those things, it becomes very subjective. The skill that you come out of the program with is regurgitating the answer that the program wants you to have.”
The SB 3 Lowe was referring to was Senate Bill 3, the so-called Critical Race Theory bill. Conservative groups think SB 3 — which limits personal opinions in the classroom — is also a philosophy broad enough to encompass what they consider to be liberal-leaning ideas like social-emotional learning.
The parents wanted the SBOE to place a “no” vote on implementing SB 123, but Associate Commissioner Monica Martinez noted that an administrative rule on the bill already is in place. And SBOE Chair Keven Ellis, a Republican from Lufkin, noted that character education is in place. SB 123 only added a couple of terms that would be incorporated into the education code.
Member Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Democrat out of San Antonio, said she had heard from school districts and businesses alike that students coming out of school are lacking soft skills. The skills incorporated by SB 123 were self-management, interpersonal skills, and responsible decision-making.
“I am not making a connection regarding what negative impact exists when we’re talking about preparing our young people with these personal skills that business and industry are asking for as well,” Perez-Diaz said. “Because (business and industry) can teach you the technical skill sets. What they can’t do is teach soft skills, which they are telling us frequently in conversation.”
Testifier Marcy Galle, a mother from Aledo, said she considered business and industry dictating what is being taught in schools as a negative. Perez-Diaz objected, saying business was not dictating what was taught in schools; they were sharing what gaps graduates have when they are hired to do a job.
“They’re sharing. They’re reflecting on what’s missing. And where people can fill gaps,” Perez-Diaz said. “That’s what’s happening. There’s no dictation.”
SBOE passed the policy, acknowledging they had little to no input in whether the policy was implemented. Lowe did say conservative lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, had indicated they would return and tighten up the language in the policy during the 2023 legislative session.