Ready for a Fight

Educators, students, and school districts are gearing up to fight a bill that they say will making teaching and learning difficult — and that might hamper programs like International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses.

Two days after House Bill 3979 passed, Dallas ISD trustees got an update from Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who warned that the district (along with other districts in the state) might be headed to court regarding the bill.

(Read: Our continued coverage of the Texas legislature)

The bill, educators and advocates say, would hamstring social studies instruction by limiting what – and how – current events and history are taught in public schools. Along with the companion bill to Senate Bill 2202, authored by State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), it seeks to discourage discussion of current events or controversial public policy issues in classrooms.

(Read: House Passes CRT Bill on Third Reading)

“I don’t like to threaten litigation very often, especially not from behind a microphone, but some of us have been talking,” he told the board, saying they’d have some “huge difficult decisions to make” if Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill.

“I don’t have the authority to sue anybody, only the board can do that, but we’re doing our homework because if this law does pass, the stakes get very high, very quickly,” Hinojosa said, adding that several districts are looking at their options.

(Read: Dallas ISD Passes Resolution Against So-Called ‘Critical Race Theory’ Bill)

Legal scholars doubt the constitutionality of the Texas bill, which is one of a flurry of bills introduced regarding critical race theory in various states.

“Of the legislative language so far, none of the bills are fully constitutional, and if it isn’t fully constitutional, there’s a word for that: It means it’s unconstitutional.”

Joe Cohn

“Of the legislative language so far, none of the bills are fully constitutional, and if it isn’t fully constitutional, there’s a word for that: It means it’s unconstitutional,” Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Atlantic.

Dallas ISD and other school districts aren’t the only ones looking at a potential legal battle. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced he joined two letters issued to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, one in partnership with the America First Policy Institute and Texas Public Policy Foundation and the other with a coalition of 20 attorneys general for other states.

The letters oppose the concept of Critical Race Theory and the possible introduction of the New York Times initiative, the 1619 Project, into classrooms.

“The Department of Education’s proposed priorities promote misinformation, undermine civic unity, and foster hateful racism,” Paxton said. “Our nation is founded on the idea that all men are created equal. We have fought for and secured this belief over the course of our history and that unity must continue, not be forced back into the single, distorted lens of race.

“Any projects that assign character traits, values, privileges, fault, or status to an individual based on their race are inherently flawed and go against our founding principles of equality.”    

Ken Paxton

“Any projects that assign character traits, values, privileges, fault, or status to an individual based on their race are inherently flawed and go against our founding principles of equality.”    

(See also: What is Critical Race Theory? Here is a good primer.)

As the Senate headed toward its discussion of the bill, more educators and students voiced their concerns, along with superintendents. The bill was placed on the Senate intent calendar for Friday, but that is no guarantee that it will be taken up at that time. Several key deadlines are coming up in the next week before both bodies adjourn on May 31

At a virtual press conference held by the Texas Legislative Education Equity Coalition, Hinojosa joined Richardson ISD superintendent Jeannie Stone, Texas student Jahziel Leduna, teacher Candace Hunter, Intercultural Development Research Association fellow Araceli Garcia, and North Texas Commission senior advisor Charlene Stark to discuss the ramifications of the proposed legislation.

“Teachers are given a mandate to educate,” Hunter said. “And that is what we do, we help in the formation of our students critical thinking skills.

“This legislation is an impediment to that process.”

Stone, who said she believes “every part of this bill is wrong,” specifically discussed the impact it would have on teacher training.

” … every part of this bill is wrong.”

Jeannie Stone

“House Bill 3979 contains prohibitions that would strip critical decisions not only for local school boards, but from principals and professional educators,” she said. “(It) will impede the good work being done in districts who are working to close achievement gaps.”

Leduna, the lone student on the panel and a high school senior, said she opposed the bill because it restricts student participation in civics projects.

“I was fortunate enough to attend a school that prioritizes civic knowledge and civics skills through projects,” she said, adding that since ninth grade she has been involved in several hyper-local civics projects. “These types of projects gave me access to elected officials and they helped me learn our structure of local government and it gave me a better understanding of how our democracy functions. These projects were possible through teachers who were equipped to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all students.

“If this bill passes,” she added, “districts and schools would not be allowed to offer credit for students who participate in similar civics projects, which would have a huge detrimental effect on their college applications.”

Hinojosa gave another warning — the bill could also impact Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

“Not only would you be limited on what you can teach, and how you can teach it,” he said. “Not only will it have an impact on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, it will have significant impact on just about every course, and every teacher will be terrified that someone is going to be recording them and turning them in to the ‘racial police.’ That is no way to operate.”

“Not only will it have an impact on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, it will have significant impact on just about every course, and every teacher will be terrified that someone is going to be recording them and turning them in to the ‘racial police.’ That is no way to operate.”

Michael Hinojosa

Hinojosa said that, in anticipation of the bill becoming law, he’s hired lawyers to help the district figure out what adjustments they’ll need to make.

“Ive already hired lawyers to help me interpret what I can and can’t do,” he said. “I’m a rule follower — I follow the rule of law, and I don’t know what that law is until it gets interpreted.”

Stark said that many chambers of commerce across the state oppose the legislation, too.

“We are concerned about our current and future workforce,” she said.

“I know there are a lot of people that are very passionate about this, and it’s not just educators — we are jeopardizing future Super Bowls to come to the state of Texas, we are jeopardizing more businesses relocating in central Texas because … they need a diverse workforce,” Hinojosa agreed. “People come to Texas because we have a diverse workforce, and if that is no longer welcome, we’re going to be losing a lot of revenue.”

“As we continue to see this type of legislation pass, unfortunately it creates an image of Texas that I don’t think we want. I think that most of us want Texas to be known as the friendly state, the welcoming state, and that you can come here and be your authentic self.”

Charlene Stark

“The migration of talent and companies to the North Texas region and the state as a whole has been remarkable,” Stark said. “As we continue to see this type of legislation pass, unfortunately it creates an image of Texas that I don’t think we want. I think that most of us want Texas to be known as the friendly state, the welcoming state, and that you can come here and be your authentic self.”

But it’s not just what students learn, Hunter said, that will be impacted. How they learn, and if they feel safe and included, is also at stake.

“Kids are going to be impacted at the end of this,” she said, referring to the children’s book El’s Mirror. “It’s basically about what we’re teaching our kids — are they looking through a window, or into a mirror? Are they able to look through … and see what’s available for somebody else, or do they see themselves reflected?”

Hunter pointed to the fight to add more women and more people of color to the state standards for social study instruction in 2010. “I don’t know if people know that before that, we were not teaching students that there was not only Paul Revere doing the midnight ride, but also there was a Black rider — Wentworth Cheswell,” she said. “I didn’t learn that when I was in school.

“We don’t want to go backwards,” she said.

Historians also registered their objections in two separate letters. More than 130 historians in Texas signed a letter objecting to both bills.

“This bill places history and civics teachers in a professionally compromising position in the classroom,” they wrote. “It is impossible to teach the history of the United States without discussing race, gender, religion, or injustice.

“That inaccurate account of history would not meet professional standards set by professional historical associations like the Organization of American Historians or the American Historical Association. That version of history would not meet the State Board of Education curriculum standards set by Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Moreover, mandating how topics like slavery must be taught is an overreach of the legislature.”

The American Historical Association also directed a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas Senate. In that letter, the organization reiterated concerns about AP courses.

“If enacted, this legislation is likely to prohibit professional teachers from including in their courses standard content required in Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment American history courses offered at the high school level.”

The American Historical Association

“If enacted, this legislation is likely to prohibit professional teachers from including in their courses standard content required in Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment American history courses offered at the high school level,” the letter said. “Such an outcome would lead to two unanticipated consequences. First, a course might lose its AP accreditation, or at the very least make it impossible for Texas students to perform well on AP exams without independent supplementary preparation. Second, the dual enrollment program enabling high school students to receive college credit for qualified work would be jeopardized, as the law would prohibit the inclusion of topics (not perspectives) required in nearly all college classes.

“A college history course presents students with the kinds of difficult, controversial questions prohibited by this bill,” the letter continued. “The uncertainty of how SB2020/HB3979 will be implemented and the likely loss of offerings for dual enrollment and AP History courses could hurt Texas’s progress toward increasing its college-educated population. Last year 12% of all college students in Texas were dual-enrollment students. History is the most offered course in dual enrollment.”

All told, more than 90 organizations have expressed their objection to the bill.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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