/ATPE/media/Blog/210929_HB3979.jpg?ext=.jpg /ATPE/media/Blog/210929_HB3979.jpg?ext=.jpg

SB 3: The Law on Civics Education as of Dec. 2

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 10/14/2021

In the first part of our series on new civics education laws, commonly (and somewhat controversially) referred to as “critical race theory” bills, we described House Bill (HB) 3979, which the 87th Legislature passed during the regular session and went into effect Sept. 1. Although he signed it, Gov. Greg Abbott expressed his displeasure regarding some aspects of the law and vowed to have the Legislature revisit the issues in a special session, which lawmakers did. The result was Senate Bill (SB) 3, which Abbott also signed into law. In this conclusion to our series, we will describe how SB 3 changes the law, focusing on what teachers need to know. Fortunately for educators, the changes made to the law were positive, addressing some of the requirements in HB 3979 likely to be the most problematic for teachers. Again, until SB 3 becomes law Dec. 2, HB 3979 remains in effect.

The law after Dec. 2

SB 3, like HB 3979, does several things that are relatively significant. First, it directs the State Board of Education (SBOE) to add certain topics to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for civics classes. SB 3 did eliminate the long list of specific source materials contained in HB 3979. Again, because this is a directive to the SBOE and any changes must go through the SBOE rule-making process, this is not anything you need to worry about right now.

A second future matter is creation of a civics training program for administrators and civics teachers that will need to be developed by TEA. SB 3 states it should be developed no later than the 2025-26 school year.  

The other three provisions are, however, of immediate concern. 

Prohibition on class credit for student advocacy

Starting with the most straightforward provision, SB 3 eliminates HB 3979’s prohibition on a teacher’s assigning, requiring, or giving class credit or extra credit for the common practice in government or social studies classes of having students write letters to legislators or other government officials, as long as the teacher does not influence the student’s position. SB 3 clarifies: “Nothing in this section may be construed as prohibiting a teacher employed by a school district or open-enrollment charter school from directing a classroom activity that involves students communicating with an elected official so long as the district, school, or teacher does not influence the content of a student ’s communication.”

The bill does continue the prohibition on a teacher’s assigning or giving credit for a student’s “… participation in any internship, practicum, or similar activity including social or public policy advocacy.” The bill does carve out an exception for “… community charitable projects, such as building community gardens, volunteering at local food banks, or other service projects.” Therefore, no assignment or credit is permitted for a student’s involvement in a social interest group with a political purpose, but it is likely acceptable if the organization does not have an overt political or advocacy purpose. Of course, teachers should always consult with their administration prior to setting up credit for such a program, just to be on the safe side.   

Description of how a teacher must discuss controversial topics in class 

One area where SB 3 improved the legal requirement for teachers is in requirements for discussion of controversial topics in class. SB 3 continues HB 3979’s provision that a teacher “… cannot be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” But it significantly changes the requirement for what a teacher must do if they choose to discuss a controversial topic, stating that a teacher who chooses to discuss such a topic “… shall explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias …”

The simple requirement that a teacher be “objective” and free from “political bias” largely eliminates the HB 3979 requirement that a teacher give equal weight to all sides in any controversy. For instance, it is clear a biology teacher would not need to give “equal deference” to evolution and creationism, as was arguably required by HB 3979. Teachers should still be aware of their community standards, for what is “truth” in one community can be viewed as “political bias” in another.  

Prohibition on teaching “critical race theory” 

Like HB 3979, SB 3 does not actually include the term “critical race theory.” It does, however, continue to prohibit certain activities commonly associated with the idea. The law states a teacher cannot require or make a part of any course the concepts that: 

  • One race is inherently superior to another.
  • An individual is, based on their race or sex, inherently superior.
  • An individual, based on race or sex, is consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive.
  • An individual should be discriminated against, based on their race or sex.
  • An individual because of their race or sex bears responsibility for actions committed in the past.
  • Meritocracy or appreciation of work ethic were concepts created to oppress others.
  • Slavery is anything other than a deviation from American ideals.

The law also prohibits any teaching that would require a knowledge of the 1619 Project, a controversial initiative that proposed that the foundation of the United States began with the introduction of slavery.

Related to concepts associated with “critical race theory,” there is one difference between SB 3 and HB 3979. HB 3979 included a prohibition on any instruction that “… an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual's race or sex.” This is not included in SB 3. Although certainly no one should experience these feelings because of their race, perhaps this was simply too subjective a standard.  

Prohibition on disciplining students for discussing such concepts

Teachers should also know the law continues to prohibit disciplining a student for discussing these concepts in a reasonable manner. Fortunately, the changes to the requirement on how a teacher should address such controversial issues, stating that the teacher simply needs to be objective and free from political bias, makes it easier for a teacher to successfully navigate such a conversation.

So, this will be the law on Dec. 2. As described, the Legislature’s revisions are ultimately helpful to teachers and should make it easier for them to negotiate the real-world situations in which they find themselves. It’s a reminder that communicating with your lawmakers about the practical impact of their actions is always worthwhile, and ATPE members may log in to Advocacy Central to easily reach out to their legislators.

The legal information provided here is accurate as of the date of publication. It is provided here is for informative purposes only. Individual legal situations vary greatly, and readers needing individual legal advice should consult directly with an attorney. Please note: Rights based on the Texas Education Code may not apply to all. Many Texas Education Code provisions do not apply to public charter schools, and public school districts may have opted out of individual provisions through a District of Innovation plan. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department.