Legislature adjourns with a good 13th-check bill and several bad bills headed to the governor

Speaker Dade Phelan on the House Floor. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Note: All bills passing, unless otherwise noted, now head to the governor, who can sign them into law, veto them, or let them pass without his signature.

On Thursday, the Legislature ended its second special session, although legislators are expected to return for yet another special session soon to address redistricting for state and congressional seats, with a possibility of the governor also adding other items to the call.

13th check for retirees

The silver lining to an otherwise chaotic session filled with bills that aim to find solutions without a problem was the passage of SB 7— a bill that provides TRS retirees with a 13th check. If the governor signs the bill into law, TRS members who retired before this year will get a one-time supplemental payment of up to $2,400. When speaking about the amendment on the House floor, representatives including Rep. Alma Allen and Rep. Glenn Rogers noted the need for a cost-of-living adjustment next session.

The supplemental budget—HB 5—which appropriates funds to TRS for the 13th check and restores funding to the state Legislature cut by the governor this summer, also passed by the House and Senate Thursday evening.

Voter suppression bill advances to governor

SB 1, the voter suppression bill that prompted House Democrats to break quorum, was sent to the governor’s desk to be signed. The House and Senate both voted to adopt a conference committee report, which removed a single House amendment to the bill. The amendment would have protected individuals who didn’t realize they were ineligible to vote from legal repercussions if they cast a ballot.

Masks in schools legislation fails to advance
Monday, the House Committee on Public Education heard public testimony on the issue of mask-mandates in public schools. Education Austin member Bronwyn Merritt testified in favor of allowing local schools boards to determine masking policies based on local needs. At the committee hearing, Chairman Dutton, who had authored HB 164, a bill allowing for mask mandates in public school districts, announced that he had reached a compromise with Rep. Jeff Leach, who had authored HB 141, a bill prohibiting mask mandates in public school districts. The compromise bill language would have allowed parents to opt their children out, effectively maintaining the status quo with more paperwork. The bills were left pending in committee on Tuesday, with the compromise apparently having fallen through.

‘Critical race theory’ bill passes
The House Public Education Committee also voted to send SB 3, the classroom censorship bill, to the full House, where it was passed along party lines Thursday afternoon. The Senate concurred on the bill later that evening.

Texas AFT strongly opposed this bill, which is nothing more than an attempt to bolster a divisive wedge issue for local school board and state legislative primary races. Our schools are inundated by student COVID-19 cases, but the Legislature Republican state leadership devoted its time to stamping out honest conversations about our history and weakening civics education. We are already seeing some of the ramifications of this bill, which could stifle the freedom to teach and put educators in the crosshairs.

The bill lists items that the State Board of Education must include in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) related to civic knowledge while removing other items, and it outlines what teachers cannot be compelled to do and what schools or teachers cannot make part of social studies instruction. 

The bill prohibits a private cause of action against a teacher, administrator, or school employee on the basis of this legislation. However, the bill states, “A school district or open-enrollment charter school may take appropriate action involving the employment of any teacher, administrator, or other employee based on the individual ’s compliance with state and federal laws and district policies.”

SB 3 also prohibits schools from giving course credit for a student’s work in the “lobbying” division of any entity or political activism. As amended by the House and Senate, students may still receive credit for work with an entity that lobbies, as long as the student is not directly involved in lobbying or public policy advocacy activities. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) will be responsible for ensuring that all schools teach civics education according to this law once it goes into effect; however, the bill does not lay out what that enforcement might look like.

The legislation requires the commissioner of education to create a civics training program for teachers and administrators with the advice of an advisory board consisting of nine current and former educators appointed by the commissioner. School districts and charters would be responsible for ensuring that at least one teacher and administrator from each campus that includes an eligible course attends the training on the so-called civics requirements. 

Transgender sports bill dies in committee

SB 2, which would have discriminated against transgender students by requiring schools to use a students’ “biological sex” at birth to determine which teams they can compete on, was left pending in the House Public Education Committee Tuesday. After vigorous debate, with some committee members questioning the necessity of such legislation and noting the need for more data on students affected, the bill did not advance.

Bill addressing family/dating violence and sex trafficking passes

SB 9, which passed the House on Thursday, requires schools to provide students instruction on the prevention of child abuse, family violence, sex trafficking, and dating violence, but only if parents consent. Districts will need to amend their dating violence policies to include a clear statement that dating violence is not tolerated at school, establish reporting procedures and guidelines for students who are victims of dating violence, and provide information regarding the instruction on the prevention of dating violence. Local schools boards will be able to adopt their own policy and curriculum with input from the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC). The governor vetoed a previous version of the bill because it did not allow for parents to opt their children out of the instruction.

Funding for virtual education approved
SB 15, which grants school districts the authority to set up their own virtual learning programs and guarantees funding through September 2023, passed both chambers. The final version of the bill prohibits students who failed their STAAR exams, earned lower than a C grade in their foundation curriculum courses, or have more than 10% unexcused absences the previous year from receiving virtual instruction.

While most educators can not be forced to teach both virtual and in-person courses, Texas AFT is very concerned about the provision that allows a district to seek a waiver of this provision for enrichment courses. The bill does state that teachers cannot be coerced to teach a full-time local remote learning program.

666 new laws in effect as of 9/1

Many of the 666 laws that went into effect across Texas this Wednesday will have a direct impact on the everyday lives of public school educators and support personnel. Though many laws went into effect as soon as they were signed early this summer, this group of 666 constitute the majority of the bills passed by the House and Senate during the 87th regular legislative session this spring took effect September 1, the start of the new state fiscal year.  

  • Read more on the bills that affect school funding, SBEC sanctions, charter schools, pre-K class sizes and many other issues.