When Texas teachers return to their public or open-enrollment charter school classrooms later this year, a new state law will restrict how they can discuss current events, encourage civic engagement and teach about America’s history of racism.
Texas educators who spoke to The Texas Tribune overwhelmingly denounced the new law, born from House Bill 3979 — the so-called critical race theory bill passed during this year’s regular legislative session. They say its sweeping language, which includes a ban on teaching that a student should feel guilt because of their race, will mean that classroom conversations about racism could unintentionally spur parents’ anger and cause teachers to be punished.
They say it will make it more difficult to creatively meet the curriculum standards given to them by the state and teach students to think critically. And they worry that the legislation altogether will chill discussions and lessons about social studies and current events in ways that give a generation of Texas students an incomplete and white-centric view of history and the world around them.
The Tribune interviewed more than two dozen teachers across the state to learn how the legislation’s provisions will impact them — and Texas students.
When Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 3979 into law, Texas joined a broader national backlash against teaching about racism and sexism. The law was passed by a Texas Legislature that is far more white than the state’s public school students.
Republican officials say it is meant to ban critical race theory from K-12 classrooms, even though the term never appears in the bill. Academic experts say GOP leaders have repeatedly misrepresented the tenets of the academic framework, which is used to examine structural causes of racial inequity. Plus, experts and teachers say the theory is not being taught in K-12 schools.
State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, the bill’s author, said that much of the new law — especially the provisions meant to prevent critical race theory from being taught — came from concerns he heard from parents who feel their kids are being “indoctrinated.”
“We’ve heard, ‘You should feel guilty for what [white people have] done,’” he said. “We have heard, ‘You’re people of privilege, and you should feel guilty for that privilege.’”
The new law includes key provisions from template legislation that appears in other states’ bills that target what Republicans label critical race theory. Toth said that in crafting the legislation, he conferred with the template’s author, Stanley Kurtz, a conservative commentator and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and collaborated with Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped spur the current controversy over critical race theory.
Texas teachers and experts say the term is being used politically as a catchall phrase for any teachings that challenge or complicate dominant narratives about the role of race in the country’s history and identity, which are historically centered on white people’s perspectives.
“They have thrown social studies teachers out on the front lines of a cultural war,” said Kerry Green, a U.S. history teacher at suburban Sunnyvale High School east of Dallas.
The new law takes effect Sept. 1.
Critical race theory says racism is baked into American institutions — like education, government and the media — and it must be addressed not just by punishing individuals, but by shifting structures and policies. But Texas teachers point out that HB 3979’s language focuses on individual traits and feelings, opening the door for parents to litigate against them based on their children’s reactions to any lesson or discussion in the classroom.
Toth said the bill isn’t trying to ban lessons on slavery, Jim Crow laws or lynchings, which he said were portrayed as being “evil things” when he was in school.
“No one ever said, ‘Oh, you can’t teach me that, I don’t want you teaching my son or my daughter that’ — no one ever said that, and this bill doesn’t say that,” said Toth, who is white. “This bill simply says, ‘Don’t accuse my child of being part of that. Don’t blame my child for that.’”
But teachers say that the language makes them vulnerable to backlash from parents, in particular the clause forbidding teaching that individuals should feel “psychological distress” due to their race or sex. The law doesn’t apply to Texas colleges or universities, but University of Texas history professor and public historian Monica Martinez said the law’s vague language causes concern for public schools.
“Any parent could just say, my child felt embarrassed, or felt shamed, or felt guilt,” she said.
The potential chilling effect, teachers say, will further minimize opportunities to weave in the perspectives and historical contributions of people of color.
“The more we remove the ability to have these critical and crucial conversations, we are going to continue to whitewash the system that is already whitewashed,” said Shareefah Mason, a master social studies teacher at Zumwalt Middle School in Dallas.
In interviews and during legislative debates, lawmakers’ justifications for the new law focused on how white people could react to mentions of race. For example, Toth expressed outrage about “Not My Idea,” a children’s book examining how power and privilege affects white people that he claimed was being recommended to students in Highland Park schools, though the district said it was not being used.
But teachers say students of color already feel distressed when learning about racism throughout history.
David Kee, a seventh grade Texas history teacher at Hill Country Middle School in Austin, said he teaches a unit on slavery that usually includes screening “Roots,” the acclaimed 1970s miniseries that follows a Black man as he is enslaved and abused. One year, the one Black student in his mostly white class watched on the first day and said she felt uncomfortable, and he gave her an alternative assignment, assuring her that it wasn’t an issue.
Kerry Green, who teaches U.S. history at Sunnyvale High School, pointed out that movements aimed at progress for some Americans — like second-wave feminism starting in the 1960s — ignored Black and brown people.
“And so there’s all these kinds of things that history is just triggering,” she said.
Angela Valenzuela, an education policy professor at the University of Texas, said the law perpetuates the long-running practices of whitewashing history in schools and disregarding the lived experiences of people of color in public policy.
“It’s very much centering white people’s, white children’s feelings,” she said.
Because the bill doesn’t specify how teachers should be punished for breaking its provisions, school districts and teachers are clambering to prepare for how it could impact them.
Angela Valenzuela, a professor in education policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said this lack of direction could make the bill even more dangerous to teachers than if it clearly stated how it would be enforced.
“Then, everybody’s an enforcer,” she said. “You create a watchdog situation.”
Districts have their own processes for parent grievances, Valenzuela said, and how complaints are handled will depend on the district. If a school board dismisses a parent’s grievance, there’s the possibility a lawsuit is filed. Until that happens, Valenzuela said, there’s no knowing how exactly the law will be interpreted. She anticipates that teachers would be protected by the first amendment.
But the mere specter of legal battles is already causing teachers to worry about conversations about race that come up in classrooms — even outside of social studies classes. Tania Tasneem, a science teacher at Kealing Middle School in Austin, said the law will influence teachers’ focus during such discussions.
“It’s not having a conversation with the kids, it’s ‘what is that going to translate to when a parent comes at me with legal stuff I won’t be able to afford?’” she said. “That’s the scariest part.”
Dallas school district Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that after the law goes into effect, there will likely be a teacher who becomes a “test case” for how the law is interpreted and enforced.
“Some student is going to videotape a teacher, and then it’s going to go viral,” he said.
Austin Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said she’s in conversation with other superintendents about how to address the law. She said that her school district would make it part of teachers’ upcoming professional development sessions to detail what to do in the case of a parent complaint and outline the support systems in place to protect them. She noted that parents often have different perspectives on topics than the ones teachers present, like evolution.
“I want to remind our teachers not to be too nervous or too concerned because we’ve handled these types of issues at the local level, regularly,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, our issues are able to be resolved at the campus level.”
Teachers worry that clauses about current events in the new law will weaken a cornerstone in teaching and studying history — connecting the past with the present.
The law forbids them from being compelled to discuss current events or controversial policy issues. But they more urgently criticize the edict not to give deference to any one perspective if they choose to do so, pointing out that it’s vague and that there are cases where giving equal weight to all perspectives would be untruthful or harmful.
Kerry Green, a U.S. history teacher at Sunnyvale High School, said current events sometimes come up organically in discussions about historic events. For instance, one class discussion about genocide organically dovetailed into a conversation about lynching and racist violence in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“What if somebody else in that classroom felt like I was criticizing white people?” she asked. “Somebody could have complained, and with the critical race theory law, then that could have created a much more complicated conversation.”
In schools with mostly students and families of color, teachers are less fearful of retaliation from students or parents for these conversations.
After George Floyd was killed last summer, Nitasha Walder talked to her fifth graders at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in the Richardson school district, most of whom are Black, about methods to avoid being accused of stealing by police, and how to protect themselves in interactions with officers. Walder said the parents appreciate that she addresses these topics in the classroom — and she anticipates that won’t change after the new law takes effect.
“It’s very sad that at fifth grade, we have to have these conversations, but it’s just the reality that we’re in now,” she said.
Anaïs Childress, an International Baccalaureate history and African American studies teacher in the Dallas school district, said that this section of the law could ensure students get to discuss controversial issues without being reprimanded by teachers for their beliefs.
“I can only hope this will encourage teachers to really think about the types of conversations we have,” Childress said.
But Andrew Robinson, an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at Uplift Luna Preparatory in Dallas, voiced concern about the direction not to give “deference to any one perspective.” When the Capitol insurrection happened in January, he stopped class and played it on TV.
“Once the election is over and there is a winner, and the other one’s saying that our democracy is fake, that the winner wasn’t really a winner — at that point, I feel like staying neutral is wrong, I feel like no, there’s not two sides to the truth,” he said.
Eliza Gordon, principal of Wells Branch Elementary School in Austin, fears this clause could especially intimidate teachers who are new to discussing current events in the classroom.
“Teachers that were just starting to feel ready and had built up some confidence, and tried it, are now going to say, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna do that now. I’m gonna lose my job,’” she said.
Texas teachers worry that the new law’s ban on requiring or incentivizing political activism will prevent them from teaching the state’s next generation of citizens how to participate in politics and shaping policy. They say it goes against one of the core goals of a civics and social studies education — to create an engaged citizenry.
“This bill is going to prevent us from changing the trajectories of the most disenfranchised, marginalized and impoverished students — those who already do not have a voice,” said Shareefah Mason, a master social studies teacher at Zumwalt Middle School in Dallas.
Texas is the only state, as of July, to include a ban on political activism, according to new “critical race theory” laws tracked by Education Week, which covers K-12 news. The Texas law does not define political activism or social or public policy advocacy.
Lucero Saldaña has taught Mexican American Studies at the public school, community college, and university levels. While the ban on political activism only applies to required social studies classes, not elective ethnic studies classes that some campuses offer, Saldaña said it will take away opportunities for all students to learn how to participate in the political process on topics that are important to them.
“This bill is directly impacting our students to not have a voice and not be engaged with what’s currently going on in our society," said Saldaña, who currently teaches at San Antonio College and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Sarah Wiseman, a humanities and African American studies teacher in the Frisco school district, often has students write letters to elected officials about current events, letting them choose who to write to and what to write about.
“It is teaching them a way to make a real difference in their world,” she said.
She fears the new law means she can’t give out such assignments. She’s also worried about the legality of the open-ended assignments she gives in which students research a topic that is interesting to them and create something about it.
“If a student chooses [letter writing] as their final product, could we get in trouble, even if it’s not something we’re requiring them to do?” she asked. “That’s pretty scary.”
The bill also prohibits districts from accepting private funding for materials or teacher training for courses that include political activism or policy advocacy as a component.
Meghan Dougherty, an instructional coach for social studies in the Round Rock school district, said she thinks this provision is a response to educators’ and advocacy groups’ unsuccessful push for legislation that would encourage students to be civically active.
“There’s a fear on the other side that that’s gonna lead to, like, the corruption of our youth, the dissolution of our social stability,” she said.
The new law requires students to learn about several dozen figures, events and documents. Most of those were African-American and Mexican-American writings and movements added to the bill by Texas House Democrats, even though many are already part of the state’s core social studies curriculum. Those include writings by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass.
But the law also adds several new required materials and subjects that aren’t currently in the curriculum.
Scott Frank, an 11th and 12th grade history teacher at IDEA Frontier in Brownsville, said the additions are the “only good clauses” of the bill.
“I’ve had kids that come up to me and say, obviously I was born in Mexico, and I live in the United States. Where am I on this test? Where am I in these textbooks?” he said. “‘I don’t feel fully American sometimes because whenever I look at the textbook, I’m not there.’”
Republican Texas senators tried unsuccessfully to strip many of the additions from the bill during the regular legislative session that ended in May. They tried again in this summer’s special legislative session, passing a bill that removes those requirements to teach that white supremacy is “morally wrong” and to teach about particular women and people of color. That move got little traction because House Democrats left the state in an attempt to block passage of voting restrictions bills.
Even if Republicans’ efforts to strip those provisions from the bill are ultimately successful, most of the items on the list will still be in the state curriculum as long as the State Board of Education doesn’t remove them. But Frank said that removing the new provisions would send a bad message.
“If you look at the American creed — e pluribus unum, out of many, one — this is missing the mark,” he said. “It’s saying that we’re only going to talk about white founding fathers, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant version of the U.S.”
Teachers say the new law’s explicit ban on teaching “The 1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times endeavor that centers the lived experiences of Black people and the enduring consequences of slavery in America’s narrative, makes it clear that lawmakers are specifically targeting lessons examining racism in America.
“They don’t mention ‘Mein Kampf,’ they don’t mention ‘The Communist Manifesto’ — they’re not mentioning writings by Fidel Castro, they’re not mentioning Mao Zedong,” said Scott Frank, the history teacher at IDEA Frontier charter school in Brownsville. “It’s ‘The 1619 Project’ that you can’t force kids to learn.”
Teachers emphasized that the law’s attempts to marginalize people of color in the curriculum, reduce spaces for them to make sense of their society, and curb opportunities to learn about political activism harm all students — not just students of color.
“How do I prepare my students to engage in conversations that are going to help them be critical thinkers and build towards racial reconciliation in this country?” said Anaïs Childress, an International Baccalaureate history and African American studies teacher in the Dallas school district.
Caroline Pinkston, a ninth grade English teacher in the Austin school district, said that ultimately, the bill makes teachers’ work harder as they deal with an ongoing pandemic and need more support than ever.
“The message we’re getting is, we don’t trust you to handle conversations about race in the classroom, and we’re going to have another thing for you to worry about, and micromanage you on,” she said. “And we’re going to make it harder for you to support your students in figuring out how to navigate the world around them.”
Disclosure: San Antonio College, The New York Times, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, Aug. 3, 2021: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of an American civil rights activist. It is Cesar Chavez, not Caesar Chavez.