August 27, 2021: Legislative Update

Aldine AFT President Candis Houston (left) testifies in committee against the voter suppression bill, SB 1. Also pictured is Roy Sanchez of the Houston Organization of Public Employees.
  • House Public Education Committee holds hearings for bills on ‘critical race theory,’ transgender sports, and virtual instruction.
  • Update on voter suppression bill
  • House vote possible on 13th check

House Public Education action

This past Tuesday, the House Public Education Committee met for 19 hours to hear testimony on bills related to several subjects, including teacher censorship, LGBTQ+ rights, virtual education, and educating students about interpersonal violence. 

Educators take stand against ‘critical race theory bill’ in House testimony
After passing HB 3979 during the regular session, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas GOP have been pushing for more legislation that restricts so-called “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in Texas public schools, even though CRT has never been taught in Texas public schools. The current special session bills heard in committee this week—HB 28 and SB 3—are designed to further restrict discussions of diversity and inclusion issues in Texas classrooms. One of the main provisions of these bills would also force teachers to publicly disclose all of their teaching materials once a month.

In a surprising move, Public Education Committee Chair Harold Dutton pulled SB 3 off the committee meeting agenda and instead chose to take testimony on the House version of the teacher censorship bill, HB 28. The Committee Substituted version of HB 28, laid out by Rep. Steve Toth, contained language that made it almost identical to SB 3, which the Senate passed two weeks ago. 

Committee members had 40 minutes of pointed questions for its author, Rep. Toth, who argued that his bill would promote racial and ethnic equality. However, Rep. Diego Bernal pointed out that leaders, legislators, and voters from historically marginalized communities of color overwhelmingly oppose the bill. Republican Rep. Dan Huberty, who voted in favor of HB 3979 during the regular session, voiced concerns over HB 28 and the disclosure burdens that it would place on teachers.

San Antonio Alliance President Alejandra Lopez, a San Antonio ISD second grade social studies teacher who grew up as an SAISD student, testified against the bill stating, “I sat in classrooms where the curriculum erased and distorted the history of my people. When I became a public school elementary teacher, I made a commitment to teach in a culturally relevant framework.”  HB 28 was left pending in committee with no vote taken on the bill. You can read more about Lopez’s opposition to SB 3 and HB 28 in the Texas Tribune.

Transgender sports bill gets hearing, but is left pending
SB 2, which discriminates against transgender students by requiring schools to use a students’  “biological sex” at birth to determine which teams they can compete on, was met with hours of testimony from parents, students, teachers, and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups opposing the bill (despite the fact that hearing on the bill didn’t begin until after 8 p.m. on a school night). SB 2 was left pending in committee with no vote taken on the bill. 

Bill aims to educate students on prevention of child abuse, and family and dating violence
SB 9, which requires students to receive instruction on the prevention of child abuse, family violence, and dating violence unless their parent opts them out of the instruction, also was heard in the committee. SB 9 was left pending in committee with no vote taken on the bill. 

Virtual instruction bill heard in committee, will be heard on floor today
SB 15 grants school districts the authority to set up their own virtual learning programs and guarantees funding through September 2023, when it is set for sunset. Currently, the bill provides some protection for teachers from having to simultaneously teach virtual and in-person classes. Both the sunset provision and language protecting educators are necessary for Texas AFT not to oppose the bill going forward.

The push for virtual learning is largely in response to the ongoing safety concerns and lack of mask mandates around schools reopening while COVID-19 continues. Full-time virtual education, which has been necessary during the pandemic, still has not been shown to be effective for the majority of Texas students. Concerns were raised that this legislation will ensconce virtual education into the existing educational framework, opening the door to the permanent expansion of virtual education—before the state has the data it needs to give proper guidelines and ensure quality virtual programming for students.

SB 15 was voted out of committee 9 to 1, with Rep. Alma Allen being the dissenting vote. The bill will be heard on the House Floor Friday and will likely spur another intense debate for House members. Questions remain on whether virtual education should be expanded before a commission on virtual education can meet to review the effectiveness of virtual education and make its report to the legislature in 2023. Texas AFT will be closely monitoring the debate.

13th check bill advances to House floor today

​The House Appropriations Committee met on Tuesday and passed SB 7—the supplemental appropriations bill for those in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas, paving the way for the full House to approve a much needed 13th check for retired educators and school staff. This would be a welcome boost to the many retirees living paycheck to paycheck after devoting their careers to educating and supporting Texas children.

Many retired educators and support personnel haven’t received a pension increase in more than 16 years. The push for a cost of living increase (COLA) has gained more support from lawmakers over the last two sessions, and Texas AFT will continue to move towards that goal in the 2023 legislative session. Until then, the 13th check will go a long way to providing retirees with some immediate relief, and Texas AFT continues to support the passage of SB 7, which will be heard on the House floor Friday. (Check our Facebook page for updates on the 13th check.)

Republicans knock down a flurry of amendments aiming at protecting voting access before passing voter suppression bill

​House Republicans quickly moved to set a committee hearing for SB 1, the voter suppression bill that was the primary motivation for House Democrats’ quorum break. The committee passed the bill on a nine to five party-line vote after more than 12 hours of committee deliberations and public testimony, including testimony from Aldine AFT’s president Candis Houston in opposition to the bill. 

Texas House Democrats argued that SB 1 limits access to voting by cutting down the hours in which polling locations are allowed to operate. They have also pointed to language in the bill that would limit voters’ access to vote-by-mail ballots and bans drive-through voting, which makes it easier for voters with disabilities. SB 1 increases the powers of partisan poll watchers, which could lead to more voter intimidation, especially targeting voters of color. The bill also creates additional barriers for individuals to receive assistance voting. 

On the House floor Thursday, the bill faced resistance from House Democrats who filed dozens of amendments in an attempt to address the many issues restricting access to voting. One of the amendments filed by Rep. Erin Zwiener would have made it illegal for insurrectionists who participated in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol from serving as poll watchers. Rep. Kyle Biedermann, who himself attended the January 6 Capitol riot, spoke in opposition to the amendment, stating that what occurred on January 6 was not an insurrection. Zwiener’s amendment failed to pass. 

The bill passed to third reading with a vote of 79-37. Texas AFT opposes this bill, which would make Texas one of the most restrictive states for voting access in the nation.