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

New Laws Make Sweeping Changes to Social Studies, History, and Discussing Current Events

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 9/29/2021

House Bill (HB) 3979 was passed by the 87th Legislature during the regular session and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott. It went into effect September 1 and remains in effect until December 2, when it will be superseded by Senate Bill (SB) 3, which was passed in the second special session and also signed by Abbott. In Part 1 of a two-part series, we’ll examine HB 3979. Stay tuned for Part 2, when we’ll cover the differences in SB 3.

You have likely heard of HB 3979 as it prohibits Texas public school districts and individual Texas teachers from teaching concepts commonly associated with “critical race theory.” All Texas K-12 teachers need to know what they can and cannot do related to critical race theory, but they also need to know that HB 3979 goes far beyond addressing critical race theory.

The law until December 2

HB 3979 does four things. First, it directs the State Board of Education (SBOE) to add a long list of specific sources and readings to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for civics classes. Because this is a direction to the SBOE and any changes have to go through the SBOE rule-making process, this is not anything you need to worry about now. The other three provisions, however, are of immediate concern. 

Prohibition on class credit for student advocacy 

Starting with the most straightforward provision, HB 3979 prohibits a teacher from assigning, requiring, or giving class credit or extra credit for a student’s “…political activism, lobbying, or efforts to persuade members of the legislative or executive branch at the federal, state or local level to take action by direct communication.” This prohibits the common practice in government or social studies classes of having students write letters to legislators or other government officials, advocating for a usually self-chosen topic. A teacher can still encourage a student’s engagement but cannot require it and cannot give any type of academic credit for it. 

The bill also prohibits a teacher from assigning or giving credit for a student’s “…participation in any internship, practicum, or similar activity including social or public policy advocacy.” So, no assignment or credit is permitted for a student’s involvement in a social interest group or the like. 

Description of how a teacher must discuss controversial topics in class 

A far more troubling provision in the law addresses teachers talking about controversial subjects with their students in class. HB 3979 states 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 a teacher who chooses to discuss such a topic “…shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” This means the teacher is supposed to present all sides equally, without taking a particular side. As many have pointed out, this can lead to serious potential issues. For example, imagine discussing the Taliban attitude about educating girls. The law would require you as a teacher to give equal weight to the Taliban perspective. Imagine parents’ reactions to this when their daughters go home and share that their teacher said girls should only receive the most basic of education. This is, however, an example of the real-world consequences of what the law requires if a teacher broaches a controversial subject in class. 

Prohibition on teaching “critical race theory” 

HB 3979 does not actually include the term “critical race theory.” What it does is 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.
  • An individual should feel bad because of their race or sex.
  • 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. 

Prohibition on disciplining students for discussing such concepts

Teachers should also know the law prohibits disciplining a student for discussing these concepts. So, while a teacher cannot teach the subjects, the teacher also apparently cannot prohibit a student from bringing them up regardless of whether the student’s comments are favorable or unfavorable to the concepts. The law is ambiguous as to how a teacher should respond if a student does bring them up. The law specifically prohibits the concepts from being included in instruction—but, as described in the previous section, the law also requires that teachers, if discussing controversial political subjects, (and critical race theory is a prime example) explore them from contending perspectives and not give deference to any one perspective. This is a fine and difficult line for teachers to walk. 

Fortunately, the new law, SB 3, does address some of the more problematic areas in HB 3979. How this is done will be described in Part 2 of this series. 

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. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department. September 2021.