Since December, school districts in Texas have been operating under Senate Bill 3, an anti-critical race theory law that brings new requirements and prohibitions to teachers discussing race and history in the classroom.
Most of the new restrictions prevent educators from teaching that one race is superior to another, or that members of one race are inherently racist, ideas that, according to Republican bill author state Sen. Bryan Hughes, are at the core of critical race theory.
In reality, critical race theory is an academic and social movement that examines racism in institutions like the criminal justice system and housing market with racist laws and practices that result in unfair outcomes for non-white Americans.
Regardless of its definition, critical race theory has become a boogeyman for rightwing Americans conerned with all things race and identity. Republicans have pushed a nationwide moral panic behind it and used it as an organizing tool, resulting in Texas being among 36 states that have added restrictions to education about racism and U.S. history.
“These ideas have begun to creep into Texas classrooms,” Hughes claimed in August on the Senate floor. “We don’t believe it’s pervasive, we wan’t to make sure it stays that way.”
Other prohibitions in the new law say teachers should not be compelled to discuss “widely debated” or “currently controversial” issues of public policy or social affairs. They are forbidden from teaching about the The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which centers slavery in the national narrative. They must teach that slavery and racism are “deviations” from the “authentic founding principles” of the U.S. — a sizeable inaccuarcy considering slavery is recgonized in the original Constitution with the Three-Fifths Compromise, a mistake that was only corrected seven decades later with a civil war, a 13th amendment to the document, and an occupation by federal troops in the South that probably should have laster longer.
When asked by Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, whether a teacher would be able to give their opinion on the cause of slavery, Hughes said nothing in the bill would prevent that. The bill itself states that none of its prohibitions, “may be construed as limiting the teaching of or instruction in the essential knowledge and skills adopted under this subchapter.”
That ambiguity has caused the gag order to create confusion, fear, or no effect at all.
“What we’ve seen thus far, it’s been a really piecemeal response because the language of the bill is so deliberately vague and because the Texas Education Agency has really not given clear guidance as to how districts should be interpreting the new law,” said Maggie Stern, a youth civic education and engagement coordinator for Children’s Defense Fund–Texas, a nonprofit child advocacy group that spoke out against the legislation.
“It’s really been down to individual teachers and schools to figure out what it means for them in practice,” Stern said.
For some teachers, the lack of clarity of what can and can’t be said has created a stifling effect when discussing issues relating to history, race, gender, sexuality or controversial topics and current events.
“When students are bringing up these issues in the classroom — because students are real people who are experiencing these problems — they are being met with this kind of silencing, and teachers who don’t want to talk about it,” Stern said.
On the other hand, teachers, families and students are also starting to recognize how drastic the overreach from state lawmakers is, Stern said.
Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said there was no real conversation with educators about the legislation.
“It’s an attack, it’s saying that we’re teaching critical race theory when we didn’t even know what that was in K-12,” Molina said. “We still don’t know because we don’t teach it.”
Molina said the legislation is an attack on a society that is beginning to talk about diversity and inclusion.
“Our veteran educators are saying, ‘I haven’t changed anything, I’m still doing the same thing I’m doing,’ but our new educators can’t say that,” Molina said, giving an example of a school library aide who hesitated in handing out a book about Black history because she was fearful of the “both sides” provision of the law.
“We don’t know how we’re gonna be turned in, when or if we’re going to be turned in, or what being turned in means,” Molina said. “Are they gonna take our certificate? Are we going to be fined? We just don’t know.”
Lakeisha Patterson, a third grade reading, writing and social studies teacher, and board member with Texas State Teachers Association, said she has not allowed the law to affect her classroom. She believes educators must continue to teach students a true account of U.S. history, including uncomfortable stories about uncomfortable periods of history.
“Honestly, since the Texas Essential Knowledge Standards have not changed, it hasn’t impacted me at all,” Patterson said. “I will continue to teach the curriculum that has been approved by the state board of education and know that I am doing the right thing by my students.”
The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) is the state standards put in place by the Texas State Board of Education that detail the curriculum required by teachers. A revision of TEKS for the social studies curriculum is scheduled to conclude around 2023, according to the bill.
During Black History Month, Patterson said she taught students about Mae Jemison and Booker T. Washington. When a colleague asked Patterson, who is Black, if she planned on teaching about those figures because they were Black, Patterson said yes: the curriculum required the teaching of U.S. historic figures, these were historic figures, and it just so happened to align with Black History Month.
“That was the end of that conversation, but the fact that statement was even brought up was a little disappointing because I know she’s not the only person that thinks that way, but I stood my ground,” Patterson said.
“In our history TEKS in third grade, we do have historic figures,” Patterson explained. “And it lists some examples but it doesn’t exclude anyone that I, as a certified, educated teacher, think would be important to share with my kids. So that is the loophole I’m navigating to continue to share important stories.”
David Ring, a high school social studies in Lubbock and a regional director with the National Education Association said the law is a solution in search of a problem.
“It really is not going to change, at least it has not changed how I approach how I teach,” Ring said. “I try to present my students with data from both sides and the context for which it exists.”
Ring said he doesn’t know of any teachers who have attempted to “indoctrinate” their students. And despite living in a politically conservative area, he said he has not seen or heard from parents concerned with critical race theory.
“I don’t think the legislature really had any sort of concrete evidence or documentation that this was happening, but it makes for good TV spots,” Ring said.