Various Democratic members larded amendments onto the originally slim bill before its late-night passage through the state House, expanding the required reading of America’s “founding documents.”
Originally, the bill would have required students to read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. After the amending process, that list grew to include required study of Sally Hemings, Dolores Huerta, Susan B. Anthony, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “historical documents related to the civic accomplishments of marginalized populations,” various court decisions, and other subjects. Bill author Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) accepted nearly all of these amendments but stopped short of accepting deep changes to the structure of the bill.
The Senate sloughed off these amendments before passing the bill and replaced them with an amendment to create a civics training program for teachers and administrators, in part to assuage concerns that the bill’s prohibitions would strand teachers in uncharted territory during civics lessons.
However, these changes left the bill vulnerable.
When it returned to the House, state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) brought a point of order against the bill that sent it back to the Senate. There, in a late-night party-line vote Friday, the Senate rushed to approve the version the House passed before the hourglass emptied.
The bill has four main parts.
First, it requires students to gain familiarity with seminal American documents and historical figures. The House amendments that swelled the bill focused almost entirely on this section.
Second, it states that a teacher may not be compelled to discuss controversial topics. Teachers who choose to host discussions on such topics must strive to explore them “from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Toth emphasized that this provision in the bill is meant to quash indoctrination rather than disagreement; opponents from teachers’ unions and traditional public school advocacy groups called it “dangerous” and said certain subjects need moral direction.
The third section says that students may not earn credit for political activism, a line meant to stem a teaching style sometimes called “action civics.” Supporters of this teaching method say the hands-on approach teaches students better than regular classroom learning. Detractors say it fosters a critical rather than appreciative view of American history and skews leftward. Massachusetts, Illinois, and other states have codified “action civics” in their state curriculums.
The final section forbids teachers and administrators from making certain concepts part of a course or requiring students to learn them. This section relates most explicitly to critical race theory, prohibiting lessons that teach collective guilt or inherent racism. Each concept applies to both race and sex; for example, the first line says teachers must not require students to learn that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”
Critical race theory studies racism and white supremacy not only as held beliefs but also as a structural phenomenon. For example, a theorist might find latent or effective racism in seemingly race-blind institutions like the justice system, the housing market, or school grading standards if they produce unequal outcomes between racial groups. It branches from critical theory, often simply called theory, which more broadly studies institutions under the assumption that they grow out of artificial social processes rather than inherent truths.
Popular distillations of critical race theory, such as the iconoclasm of The New York Times’ 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi’s critiques of equal treatment, have informed priorities for the U.S. Department of Education. A line in Toth’s HB 3979 would prevent state participation in certain federal teaching programs under these priorities.
His bill has become a lightning rod among conservative curriculum-related bills, drawing attention away from similar legislation — sometimes nearly identical — that has passed both chambers with little fanfare.
The aptly-named Senate Bill (SB) 1776, which would create a high school elective class on the founding principles of America, passed out of conference committee two days ago. Another bill to create the “1836 Project,” an advisory committee to promote patriotic education, was just signed in the House. State Sen. Larry Taylor’s (R-Friendswood) bill to promote “informed patriotism” in Texas students, which requires all of the readings that Toth’s bill originally listed, has also passed the full legislature.
Current Texas Education Code requires schools to “foster the continuation of the tradition of teaching United States and Texas history and the free enterprise system.”
“A primary purpose of the public school curriculum is to prepare thoughtful, active citizens who understand the importance of patriotism and can function productively in a free enterprise society with appreciation for the basic democratic values of our state and national heritage,” the code reads.
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