87th LegislatureEducationState HouseLawmakers Push for Public School Students to Study American Founding Documents

State lawmakers are considering bolstering Texas public education standards to require study of the US Constitution, the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and excerpts by Alexis de Tocqueville.
April 20, 2021
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Only 37 percent of Texans can pass a United States citizenship test according to testimony heard in the Texas legislature on Tuesday.

In laying out legislation that would require public school students to study American founding documents, Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood) noted that a recent survey also shows only 23 percent of Texans under age 45 can pass the citizenship test while 90 percent of immigrants earn passing scores.

“In his farewell address to the nation in 1989, President Ronald Reagan called for an informed patriotism in his final words to America,” said Bonnen. “He warned the country of an eradication of the American memory that could result ultimately in an erosion of the American spirit saying, ‘if we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.’”

Bonnen’s “Informed Patriotism” legislation, House Bill (HB) 4509, is identical to a bill authored by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) heard in the Senate Committee on Education earlier this month, and are among several filed after Gov. Greg Abbott included bolstering civics education as a legislative priority earlier this year.

If passed, the proposal would require the State Board of Education to adopt social studies standards that promote student understanding of “the fundamental moral, political, and intellectual foundations of the American experiment in self-government,” and the structures and processes of federal, state, and local levels of government.

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Specifically, Bonnen’s bill states students should study and understand the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and “other writings of the founders of the United States.”

Thomas Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation testified in favor of the bill as necessary to address a crisis in civic illiteracy and to increase knowledgeable participation.

“We all know increased civic knowledge leads to more voting and more informed voting,” said Lindsay.

Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) questioned the documents specified and whether students should be encouraged to engage in activism, but Lindsay noted that many students were active without understanding.

“We’ve got a lot of action and we’ve got a lot of passion,” said Lindsay. “What the survey shows us is that we need thinkers right now.”

Lindsay also referenced an article from former educator and senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Robert Pondiscio explaining his shift from teaching student activism to emphasizing foundational content.

“[Pondiscio] has found if you turn kids towards activism at too young of an age, before they understand the Constitution…what you end up doing…is using kids as political props.”

Talarico also asked if students could possibly participate based on “their own life experience regardless of whether or not they understand the founding documents,” but Lindsay suggested that would be rare. 

Although he said did not disagree with the bill, Talarico explained that he did not think it went far enough since he said, “the most superficial learning is just reading, digesting, and understanding,” and suggested promoting active participation could be added in a future legislative session.

“I disagree with the argument that facts and dates and content has led to our civic illiteracy,” rebutted Lindsay, who also noted that only one-third of American adults could name all three branches of government. “Quite the contrary; we abandoned that in the sixties when we went for so-called student-centric curriculum.” 

Public Education Committee Chair Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) asked which side students would take on standing or kneeling for the national anthem if they had studied “informed patriotism.”

“The way that you teach those sorts of issues is to take the students back to the constitutional questions involved. Our job is not to teach them what to decide on that issue. Our job is to show them what the debate is.”

Maggie Stern of the Children’s Defense Fund testified on the bill, requesting that contemporary writings of “women, and Black, Native, Latinx, Asian, and other people of color” be added to the required texts.

Michael Baumgartner who said he represented Civics 4 Y’all, a student-led advocacy group from St. Edward’s University, also testified on the bill but requested the addition of required student activities both in and outside of the classroom.  

Both the House and Senate versions of the Informed Patriotism legislation remain pending in the respective committees.  

Legislation introduced by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) clarifying American and Texas History requirements for students at state-supported colleges and universities has passed through committee and is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate on April 21.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.