A more restrictive law designed to keep “critical race theory” out of Texas public schools became law on Thursday.
Under the new law, a “teacher may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” The law doesn’t define what a controversial issue is. If a teacher does discuss these topics, they must “explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias.”
It also requires at least one teacher and one campus administrator at each school district to attend a civics training program that will teach educators how race and racism should be taught in Texas schools.
There are more than 1,200 school districts in Texas. The cost to develop and implement the training program alone would be about $14.6 million annually, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
Senate Bill 3, passed during the Texas Legislature’s second special session ending Sept. 2, replaces House Bill 3979, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed over the summer. At the time, Abbott said more needed to be done to “abolish” critical race theory in Texas classrooms and lawmakers went to work to craft a more restrictive measure. The result was SB 3.
“It's not just about what a teacher may or may not say,” said Chloe Latham Sikes, deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association. “It's also how they go about their class, how they design the class — how they might address really sensitive issues of race and gender and identity and sexism in their classrooms.”
Critical race theory is the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals. It’s an academic discipline taught at the university level. But it has become a common phrase used by conservatives to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools.
The new civics training mandated by the new law that requires attendance by at least one teacher and one campus administrator from each district will be created by the Texas Education Agency and it must be implemented no later than the 2025-2026 school year.
The state education agency has not yet released what this civics training program will look like. The law also requires the TEA to set up an advisory board for the training program.
The earlier attempt at a law to restrict what is taught in school caused so much confusion among educators that a North Texas administrator informed teachers at a training session in October that they had to provide materials that presented an “opposing” perspective of the Holocaust.
In records obtained by The Texas Tribune, the TEA has been advising school administrators that teachers should just continue teaching the current curriculum until the State Board of Education revises the social studies curriculum over the next year.
The new law also zeroed in on the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, a collection of essays that centered on how slavery and the contributions of Black Americans shaped the United States. With this law, students cannot be required to read the 1619 Project essays. It also bars students from receiving credit for working as a volunteer with a political campaign or interning for companies or organizations where they will be lobbying. Also, any school district that uses an online portal to assign learning material has to give parents access.
“All of this is really about routing out any acknowledgement of the salience of sex, race, gender and silencing those conversations, which, in the end, ultimately hurt students of color and students in the LGBTQ community,” Sikes said.
Disclosure: New York Times has been a financial supporter 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.
38 House Democrats sign letter demanding Boebert be stripped of committee assignments for ‘weaponizing bigotry’
Thirty-eight Democrats from the House Progressive Caucus have signed on to a letter calling for leadership to strip committee assignments from U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), who was seen in at least three videos suggesting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is a terrorist.
The lawmakers in a statement cite Boebert's "Islamophobic comments and incitement of anti-Muslim animus," and note Omar has been ther target of "death threats and vitriol" as a result. Representatives Jamaal Bowman (NY), Cori Bush (MO), André Carson (IN), and Pramila Jayapal (WA) led the move.
They say that Boebert "has repeatedly weaponized dangerous, anti-Muslim bigotry" at Rep. Ilhan Omar.
"Instead of apologizing, Rep. Boebert has continued her Islamophobic rhetoric and chosen to spread hateful speech even further," which they warn "creates a dangerous work environment and furthers a climate of toxicity and intolerance."
They also chastise House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's "decision to allow and embolden continued hostility from his members," which they say "speaks clearly to the Republican party's willingness to allow hate and division to grow at the expense of our people, our values, and our institutions."
In at least one of the videos Boebert says Congresswoman Omar is "black-hearted" and "evil." In two separate videos speaking to different audiences Boebert tells two very different versions of a story centered around being in an elevator with Omar but noting that because she wasn't wearing a "backpack" she was unafraid. Omar calls the entire story fake.
"Congress cannot forgo accountability when a Member engages in hate speech that dehumanizes not only a colleague, but an entire people," the House Democrats' letter also says. "We cannot be complicit as members of this body, who swore an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States, trample on the fundamental right of religious freedom."
Axios' Andrew Solender reports Rep. Jayapal "told me today me Pelosi has been 'reaching out to Ilhan today.'" He posted their letter:
Texas Democrats want to talk about the power grid.
Specifically, they want to talk about how it failed in February, how they don’t think enough has been done to fix it and why they believe Republicans in statewide leadership positions are the ones to blame.
Democratic candidates and strategists see the power grid as the Republican party’s biggest vulnerability — and they see highlighting it as their best shot at winning crossover voters in the state’s 2022 election cycle, which is expected to be an uphill battle for the minority party.
In stump speeches and messages to supporters, Democrats say that GOP leaders failed at fixing the shortcomings of the state’s energy infrastructure that led to millions of Texans losing power for multiple days during a winter storm in February, which resulted in a death toll that has been calculated as ranging from 210 to more than 700 people.
Beto O’Rourke, the frontrunner to challenge Republican Greg Abbott for governor, has said the two-term incumbent did “absolutely nothing” to heed warnings despite a previous electricity blackout in 2011. Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor, coined the slogan “fix the damn grid” as one of his campaign’s top priorities. And Luke Warford, who is running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and natural gas industry, has made “Let’s keep the lights on!” his campaign slogan.
“It makes sense for Democrats to want to channel those doubts and put them front and center,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “About the only good thing for Democrats about the extended Republican monopoly [in state politics] and their demonstrated inability to break that monopoly is that there’s only one political party that can be blamed.”
But Republican leaders defend their record, pointing to more than a dozen laws passed during this year’s legislative session to address the grid’s reliability.
Abbott has been adamant that the grid “is better today than it’s ever been” and will not fail again.
“Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June.
But just two weeks ago, the group that manages the power grid released its own analysis showing that the grid is still vulnerable to blackouts during severe winter weather, despite actions taken by the state since February.
After the storm, lawmakers revamped the governance of the Public Utility Commission, which regulates utilities, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit quasi-governmental body that manages the grid. They also passed laws aimed at improving the grid’s preparation for extreme cold weather but didn’t set a hard deadline for when the upgrades need to be complete and allowed natural gas producers to delay the start of their own weatherization efforts.
Democrats say that’s not good enough — and many voters agree.
Sixty percent of Texas voters said they disapproved of how state leaders handled the power grid’s reliability, according to an October poll by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune. Only 18% approved.
For Democrats, who face unfavorable odds following redistricting and a traditionally difficult midterm election while their party’s president is in office, the grid issue offers an inroad to voters who traditionally don’t support their party.
Among independent voters, 61% disapprove of the state’s work on the grid. Even 45% of Republicans disapprove. Forty-three percent of rural voters, whom Democrats have struggled to attract for decades, are also dissatisfied with the state’s work on the issue.
Matthew Dowd, who is running for lieutenant governor, called it a “populist message” that can appeal to a broad array of voters.
“That goes to rural voters, Hispanic voters, that goes to urban voters,” he said. “The average Texan has been left behind while wealthy companies make money.”
The challenge for Democrats, Henson said, is that the power grid is not among voters’ top concerns.
“When we ask people ‘What do you think is the biggest issue facing the state?’ it doesn’t come up unprompted,” he said, adding that voters are more concerned with issues like border security and immigration.
Corbin Casteel, a Republican political consultant, also questioned the issue’s salience.
“I don’t think it would show up in the top 20 for [Republicans] or [Democrats],” he said. “It’s not a matter of saying ‘Is it important or not?’ It’s a matter of what’s gonna move votes.”
Casteel, who lobbies for the oil and gas industry, said GOP state officials have taken action to address some of the shortcomings that led to the grid’s failure and that a winter storm like the one the state experienced in February is unlikely to happen two years in a row.
“You see a lot of desperation in Democrats looking for something that will stick and I don’t think this is it,” he said.
But Democrats say the issue is resonating with their voters.
“There’s not one place in Texas that I visited that hasn’t been interested in hearing about it,” Collier said. “I don’t have to spend any time explaining to people how dangerous the situation is nor do I have to explain that they didn’t do anything to fix the grid.”
At a November rally in McAllen, O’Rourke blasted Abbott’s response to the power outages, saying his connection to the oil and gas industry “explains everything." In June, billionaire Kelcy Warren donated $1 million to Abbott’s campaign. His pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, made $2.4 billion from the winter storm, according to Bloomberg.
“Despite the tragedy and the loss of life, this governor has once again done nothing for the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said.
Abbott pushed back on O’Rourke’s criticism.
“Beto O’Rourke continues to run a campaign that thrives on misinformation and scare tactics to hide from his liberal open border, anti-law enforcement and job killing policies,” said Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner. “Concerning the grid, the truth is Governor Abbott signed 14 bills into law that improve the robustness and resiliency of the electric grid and ensure the reliable delivery of electric service to all Texans.”
But Abbott’s getting it from both sides. Even his primary Republican challengers, former state Sen. Don Huffines and former Republican Party Chairman and Florida congressman Allen West, have also criticized the response to the winter power outages.
“Texans deserve a governor who can keep the lights on,” Huffines said a press release.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate and is running for reelection, has also rebuffed criticisms that state leaders failed to act. In a statement, Patrick said he has delivered on his push to replace all members of the PUC and the ERCOT Board of Directors, adding that the new members of those boards will be held to a “higher standard for transparency and accountability.”
But several times this year, Patrick expressed dissatisfaction at the work the Legislature did and just last month he told the Texas Latino Conservatives that “we still have more things to do on our grid.”
Patrick led an aggressive push to reverse $3 billion in charges for electricity during the height of the winter storm that likely will be passed on to ratepayers. The Senate approved a bill but the House did not take up the legislation, saying it could disrupt international energy markets.
Patrick did not hide his frustration with the House’s inaction or with its leader, Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican.
“With broad bipartisan support, the Texas Senate passed legislation to require a repricing to return money to ratepayers. House leadership refused to allow their members to vote on these issues,” Patrick said.
Phelan defended the House’s response to the grid failures and said the chamber would continue to hold the regulatory agencies accountable “to ensure the grid never fails again.”
“Lt. Gov Patrick has held his post since 2015 without making the grid a priority, but in only my second month as Speaker it was the House that first demanded action and accountability after the fatal grid collapse,” he said in a statement. “The House's approach to grid reform was about saving lives in the future while the motivation behind and who benefits from the Senate's approach remains unclear.”
Henson, the political scientist and pollster, said both parties are betting that their side will be proven right after the winter. If the grid holds up and the state gets to the spring without any major incidents, voters will move on to the next big political issue.
But any semblance of a grid failure could sink some Republicans.
“Another significant problem with the energy grid in the state will change that context and will definitely create opportunities for Democrats,” he said.
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter 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.