AUSTIN, Texas — This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
Texas GOP senators revived a contentious bill Friday night that would limit how Texas teachers can talk about current events and America’s history of racism in the classroom, hours after House Democrats seemed to have successfully killed the legislation. The bill now appears back on track to reach Gov. Greg Abbott's desk for approval.
House Bill 3979 originated in the House, but the Senate substantially changed it earlier this month. Those changes included stripping out more than two dozen requirements that students study the writings or stories of multiple women and people of color.
When the bill went back before the House on Friday, state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, raised a procedural violation, arguing that some changes from the Senate were not relevant to the bill. His point of order was sustained, appearing to block the bill in the final days of the Legislature.
But hours later, senators removed the amended language and reverted back to the House version of the bill, over the objections of Democratic senators. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, called his own point of order in the upper chamber to try to block the Senate's move, noting that the Senate rules say that a four-fifths vote is required to pass out a bill this late in the legislative session. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, overruled that objection. Patrick told senators, some of whom seemed confused, that the vote was not on passing the bill — but simply on removing their previous amendments to it. The Senate then agreed to strip their previous amendments.
The bill says teachers cannot be compelled to discuss current events, and must explore various view points without giving deference to either side. And the Senate's move Friday also revived the requirement that various historical women and people of color and their writings be studied.
Many educators and education advocacy groups had opposed the bill, which still states that teachers cannot be compelled to discuss current events and if they do, they must “give deference to both sides." Opponents say it limits honest conversations about race and racism in American society.
After Senate Republicans tried to revive the House version, Senate Democrats still raised issues that the bill does not reflect the necessary hard conversations that teachers and schools must have with today's youth.
"We keep talking about a United States, but we keep on doing things like this that frankly divide us," West said.
Educators and advocacy groups also protested that it prohibits students from getting credit or extra credit for participating in civic activities that include political activism or lobbying elected officials on a particular issue.
The version now apparently heading to the governor also bans the teaching of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a reporting endeavor that examines U.S. history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil, marking that as the country’s foundational date.
The vote to strip the previous Senate amendments came in a 18-13 vote. In a statement after the Senate's move, Talarico, who'd imperiled the bill in the House earlier, echoed his fellow Democrats.
“It’s ironic that Lt. Governor Patrick ignored the Texas Constitution to revive a bill about civics” said Talarico. “I’m proud that my point of order forced the Senate to pass the House version of HB 3979, which includes important Democratic amendments requiring Texas educators to teach the history of white supremacy.
Talarico and Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, sparred on the House floor over amendments the Senate stripped from the bill that would require students to learn about and read historical writings of women and people of color throughout history. Talarico was especially angry his amendment that required schools to teach that white supremacy is morally wrong was also removed.
“Is it fair to say that any bill that strikes language condemning racism is a racist bill?” Talarico asked Toth.
Supporters of HB 3979, which mirrors legislation making its way through state legislatures across the country, argue they are trying to combat personal biases bleeding into public education, pointing to a few individual instances in school districts across the state where parents have raised concerns.
But many teachers and advocates say those issues are few and far between and should be addressed on the local level rather than by state lawmakers.
"The actions taken in the Senate tonight reveal just how politically motivated this piece of legislation actually is, and just how far removed it is from the real lives of teachers and students in Texas," said Texas Legislative Education Equity Coalition in a statement.
They also criticized GOP lawmakers for interfering in the classroom to gain political points.
“We know full well at this time in our history that this bill is politically motivated,” said Round Rock High School teacher Sheila Mehta, who views the bill as a pushback against efforts among history teachers like herself to include more perspectives and historical accounts in history lessons. “If I look at the words of the bill, I feel like it’s almost like I don’t have to change anything. I just can’t be compelled to do this. Whereas the spirit of the bill, I know that there’s a lot of legislators who want me to stop doing what I’m doing.”
Teachers said they don’t feel trusted as professionals to have these nuanced conversations with students, which they often have and are able to keep their personal opinions to themselves.
Throughout legislative debates over the bill, GOP lawmakers have expressed concerns that teachers are unfairly blaming white people for historical wrongs and distorting the founding fathers’ accomplishments. In recent years, there have been calls for more transparency about historical figures’ racist beliefs or connections to slavery.
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