AUSTIN, Texas — School boards could replace counselors with chaplains in a bill that has now passed both the Texas House and Senate, which makes it likely the bill will become law when schools open this fall.
The House passed Senate Bill 763, 89-58, on Monday evening. The bill was amended to include a certification requirement for potential school chaplains, as well as an assurance that candidates are not on a sexual offender registry. Amendments intended to broaden access to other faith traditions and narrow the program to larger school districts were nixed.
Texas requires one school counselor for every 500 students in Texas public schools. Most will have a master’s degree, two years in the classroom, and a valid school counselor certificate. Chaplains, which now have a newly created chapter in the Texas Education Code in Senate Bill 763, have none of those requirements.
Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, carried SB 763 in the House. He deferred many of the specifics to local school boards. Local school boards could require endorsements, a master’s degree and post-degree training, Hefner said.
“I want to make sure that we’re making it clear — that everybody knows — that schools may choose to do this, or not, and that they can put whatever rules and regulations in place that they see fit,” Hefner said of chaplain candidates, responding to questions from former school teacher Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock. “I think, just to be blunt with you, we can trust the school boards to do that.”
SB 763 is permissive — the school board makes the choice to use school chaplains — but the bill also has another requirement: All school boards must take an up or down vote whether they intend to add the school chaplains policy. Some members of the House, like Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, considered such a requirement to be a litmus test for the religiosity of individual school boards.
Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, carried SB 763 in the Senate. The use of chaplains, Middleton said, is familiar to both first responders and state agencies.
“Chaplains are part of our communities in the military, police, fire chaplains. They represent God in our government institutes,” Middleton told the Senate Education Committee, noting that Texas lagged behind national averages in student-to-counselor ratios. “Schools don’t have to hire chaplains under this bill. However, for the same reasons why they work so well for our public safety officials are the same reasons that I believe chaplains will work well for our students.”
Chaplains are trained in pastoral counseling. The requirements of a school counselor include guidance on high school diploma plans, recommendations for placement in modified instruction and often a resource for conflicts between students.
Several chaplains and want-to-be chaplains, some clearly moved, testified to support SB 763 during the Senate hearing. Teacher Todd Taylor of Pasadena said he was being called to transition his career from the classroom to the role of school chaplain in order to give children hope. He broke down, talking about the crisis team who came to his school after a kindergarten student drowned.
“They spent one day in our school with his class, and then they left,” said a clearly emotional Taylor. “If we had chaplains in schools, they would be there every day. They would personally know those kids. The teachers, myself included, were given a phone number to call if you need help. If we had chaplains there, we would get the help we needed.”
Christopher Rhoades, an ordained minister and an educator, also spoke about the support pastors could give to the growing number of students who are suffering from depression and anxiety.
“I’m not asking you to let me browbeat people with the Gospel. I’m not asking you to let me force religion on people to be able to take up an offering at school,” Rhoades said. “Rather, I’m asking you to give me and others like me, who have a pastor’s heart and the appropriate qualifications, the privilege of offering pastoral care where students are when they need it.”
Middleton frequently noted, during testimony in committee, that the chaplains would supplement rather than replace school counselors. By the time the bill got to the House floor, however, Hefner was saying a school board could replace any or all of its counselors with chaplains.
“Is it possible that any campus could replace all of their counselors with just chaplains?” Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, asked Hefner. “Could you have campuses where the only support employee on site is a chaplain, but not a counselor or a social worker or a school psychologist or a family specialist?”
“The way the bill is drafted — and the intent of the bill — is to allow the schools the option to have chaplains in place of or alongside counselors,” Hefner said, adding that he trusted boards and superintendents to make the right decisions.
Testimony included support from at least one school board member, several teachers and Moms for America. Trustee Chad Green, who has led a fight to remove books from McKinney ISD libraries, testified in favor of the bill. So did State Board of Education member Julie Pickren. Multiple education groups representing teachers, counselors and social workers registered against the bill, although few of them testified before the Senate or House committee.
On the House floor, Hefner also saw pushback from Democrats such as Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who clearly expected his amendments to fail on the House floor, but wanted to create a record on the bill. He proposed an amendment, defeated by the House, that would offer multiple faith traditions to students.
“Mr. Speaker, members, you know, I love being up here and setting records for future litigation,” Wu said. “Can we have an additional faith? Because, otherwise, there’s a monopoly by one group. This allows more choice, more freedom, more liberty. How can you be against that?”
Several faith-based organizations raised concerns about the school chaplain proposal. Rev. Jennifer Hawks, legal counsel for the Baptist Joint Commission, praised the endorsement requirements for chaplains added by Talarico, adding that most chaplains with national certifications understood the parameters of religious freedom.
“Of all the problems facing public education in Texas, it is still unclear what problem this legislation is fixing for Texas families,” Hawks said in a written statement. “If more school counselors are needed, the legislature could have allocated part of the Texas budget surplus to allow school districts to hire more trained and qualified school counselors instead of creating a new position without any accountability or oversight and no concern for the unique context of children in public schools.”