Senate Bill 3 replaces and broadens a prior “critical race theory” law passed by state legislators over the summer.
A new expansive measure targeting how topics such as race and racism can be discussed in Texas schools went into effect December 2, replacing a previous “critical race theory” law passed in May. Signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 17, Senate Bill 3 went into effect last Thursday, and includes, among other stipulations, that “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.”
The new law does not explain which issues are considered controversial, but if a teacher chooses to discuss such a topic, they must “explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias.” The law also disallows students from receiving credit for volunteering for political campaigns or interning with advocacy groups and lobbying firms.
Senate Bill 3 also requires one teacher and one campus administrator from each school district to attend a yet-to-be-created civics training program that will teach how race and racism should be taught in schools. The Texas Education Agency is now required to set up an advisory board for said training program, a move some view as onerous and redundant.
“That’s a huge state overreach outside of the accountability system we have for monitoring at the state agency level over what is going on in specific classrooms and how social studies is taught,” said Dr. Chloe Latham-Sikes, deputy director of policy for the Intercultural Development Research Association, adding teachers already have learning standards, or TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) that outline what students are to learn in each course or grade. “This is a different level of surveillance than we typically see.”
In comparison to House Bill 3979, Sikes said SB 3 is more restrictive and broader in scope in terms of how it regulates classroom discussions about race, gender, sex and other issues. The new law also expands the scope of what it considers to be prohibited from solely social studies classes to all subjects taught from Kindergarten through grade 12. In reaction to these new rules and without clear guidance on how to implement or enforce them, some educators have pulled books from shelves and canceled civic engagement programs and events. Sikes believes matters will only continue in this way, with the state bringing increasing scrutiny to educators’ curriculums in the hopes of deterring certain conversations in the classroom.
“What’s happening is a broader interpretation and confusion about how we talk about race and really important conversations are being silenced,” Sikes said. “In practice, because they [the laws] are so vague, they are interpreted as applying to any conversation about race, racism, social justice, sex, sexism and discrimination. That’s where that chilling effect and silencing is happening and it’s really concerning.”
While the legislation have been popularly referred to as “critical race theory” bills, Sikes said they are not actually about the academic discipline at all. “It’s saying things that aren’t taught in classrooms, like teachers cannot teach that one race is superior to another and that’s not happening,” Sikes said. “That’s also not what critical race theory is about. If you give it a strict literal interpretation, you would say these don’t really apply in schools.”
On Nov. 18, the TEA released a side-by-side comparison of what provisions changed from HB 3979 to SB 3, with two specific points highlighted. The first states that although a long list of learning standards included in HB 3979 were removed in SB 3, that doesn’t means those items shouldn’t be taught, Sikes explained. “It’s kind of trying to straddle the line between we are trying to restrict how certain things are talked about but we’re not trying to affect how other TEKS are taught in school,” she said. “So that one is pertaining to those types of concerns of how this is going to compromise accurate reflections of history and teaching.”
The second bullet states that private citizens can’t sue teachers for what they teach but educators can be fired if they violate district policies. However, the information does not offer guidance on how the law should be implemented and enforced. Teachers are waiting on edge for actual specifics in executing these new policies, Sikes said.
“What would be really helpful is guidance from the TEA about how teachers can and in fact should talk about race, racism and racial justice to convey a comprehensive understanding of American history and current events,” Sikes said, adding development opportunities about racial justice and social justice for teachers should also be included for teachers to provide support to their students.
“Bills like this are punitive and oriented toward restricting teachers as professionals,” Sikes said. “I don’t know what that will do to the teaching profession, but it certainly doesn’t feel good.”