Recap: This Week at the Legislature

San Antonio Alliance member Teresa Razo and Northeast Houston AFT member Tammy Reyes meet with a representative from Rep. Greg Bonnen’s office this past Tuesday. 

Public Education: House Approves Book Ban & Public Education Committee Hears Texas AFT Testimony, Senate Passes School Safety Bill and Targets Separation of Church and State

This week, the Texas House passed House Bill 900 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), which would ban certain reading materials from public school libraries. Patterson claims the bill targets “sexually explicit materials,” but legal experts and librarians have explained that the bill language is so vague and broad that it could result in bans on materials that are not inappropriate. 

Hotline readers might remember Patterson from the startling moment he scoffed at the idea of providing educators with much-needed raises on the floor of the Texas House.

Critics of the bill, including many students and librarians, have expressed concerns about the bill’s true intentions: to target books that center on historically marginalized populations. In his comments opposing the bill, Rep. Ron Reynolds, chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said titles targeted by book bans tend to center the perspectives of LGBTQIA+ people and people of color. We have already seen how book bans currently enforced by certain ISDs disproportionately target these perspectives.

Under HB 900, private book vendors, not school librarians or elected officials, would assign ratings to these materials. Depending on the book’s rating, it would either be removed from school library shelves or would require parental permission to be accessed.

Despite widespread opposition to this bill from the public education community, it passed through the Texas House by a vote of 95-53. 

 All Representatives with an “A” by their name voted for HB 900, all those with an “N” by their name voted against HB 900.

The House Public Education convened for marathon hearings on both Tuesday and Thursday. At those hearings, the committee discussed several consequential items including HB 1572 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) which increases facilities funding for charter schools, and HB 1926 by Rep. Lacey Hull (R-Houston) which diverts public tax dollars to private special education services. Texas AFT opposes both bills.

 Linda Arbuckle, a parent activist allied with Texas AFT, testifies against HB 1926.

Not all the bills the committee decided to dedicate its time to were consequential. This included a meaningless bill that would establish “Texas Fruit and Vegetable Day,” HB 3991 by Rep. Carrie Isaac (R-Dripping Springs). While these bills receive hearings, bills that would provide public school educators with meaningful raises, like HB 1548 by Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin), HB 4586 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), and SB 693 by Morgan LaMantia (D-South Padre Island), have gone unheard.

Texas AFT members Tammy Reyes and Teresa Razo traveled from Houston and San Antonio, respectively, to tell legislators directly that they must provide educators with substantial raises. Reyes and Razo testified on HB 2273 by Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress), which would require educators to teach students about their “shared responsibilities” as residents of Texas. In their testimonies, featured below, Reyes and Razo explained to the committee that the state of Texas is not fulfilling its own responsibility to educators. 

Reyes explained to the committee that despite working as a paraprofessional in Galena Park ISD and working a second job, she is currently homeless.

Teresa Razo, a San Antonio Alliance member, testifies on HB 2273.
Tammy Reyes, a Northeast Houston AFT member, testifies on HB 2273.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Texas Senate unanimously passed SB 11 by  Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville). SB 11 is the Senate’s priority school safety bill, intended to address school shootings, like the shooting in Uvalde last year that killed 19 students and two teachers. While this bill has many positive aspects to it, it does not address the root cause of gun violence: the easy availability of guns.

One bill that would address that root cause finally received a hearing in the House Select Committee on Community Safety on Tuesday. HB 2744 by Rep. Tracy King (D-Batesville), who represents Uvalde County, would prohibit the sale of semiautomatic rifles to individuals under the age of 21. Despite beginning public testimony almost 12 hours after the committee first convened, the committee heard hours of heartfelt support for the bill, including testimony from the family members of Uvalde victims. Despite this powerful testimony on the House side, no similar bill has received a hearing in the Senate. 

In addition to SB 11, the Senate also voted to approve SB 1515 by Sen. Phil King (R-Weatherford) and SB 1396 by Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston). SB 1515 would require a framed copy of the Ten Commandments to be placed in every public school classroom, and SB 1396 would allow school districts to vote to “adopt a policy requiring every campus or school to provide a period of prayer and readings from the Bible.” 

Mandated displays of specific religious texts and prayer periods ostracize students who have differing religious faiths or beliefs, and Texas AFT opposes both bills.

Higher Education: Texas Senate Approves Bans on Tenure & DEI Offices

This week, the Senate passed two bills, SB 17 and SB 18, both by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), which would massively disrupt higher education. These bills are opposed by both Texas AFT and the Texas American Association of University Professors, AFT’s higher education affiliate. 

SB 17 would abolish diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs on college campuses and would remove provisions that currently give professors a voice in the governance of colleges and universities.

DEI offices are intended to create more inclusive campuses by recruiting more diverse students and faculty. These offices seek to promote racial and ethnic diversity, diversity in sexual orientation, diversity in gender identity, and diversity in life experience — including targeted recruitment of combat veterans, for example. This bill would prohibit diversity as a consideration while making hiring decisions.

SB 17 creates a system to punish faculty or staff who are found promoting policies like diversity training, hiring, or just any differential treatment that is related to race, sex, or ethnicity. Professors who violate SB 17 would be terminated. Institutions could lose up to $1 million in funding for each violation of SB 17. Opponents of SB 17 argued that removing DEI offices would lead to less diverse and inclusive campuses. In addition, the loss of DEI initiatives could cause Texas universities to lose billions of dollars in research funding, which is often contingent on diversity programs being in place at universities.

Many of the arguments outlined by supporters of the bill, including Creighton, suggest that DEI programs should be abolished because Texas universities still lack diversity in the student body and staff. Instead of strengthening this tool to build diversity, supporters argued that removing it entirely will somehow make universities more diverse.

Many supporters of the bill also twisted the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to imply that DEI offices instill some sort of “reverse racism.” These same supporters continually suggested that colleges should be “color-blind” and ignore diversity altogether.

Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) addressed these flawed arguments in his closing speech on the bill.

Senator Borris L. Miles presents a closing statement explaining his vote against SB 17.

SB 17 was passed by a party-line vote in the Senate, with all Democrats opposing the bill and all Republicans supporting it.

SB 18, meanwhile, would end the practice of awarding tenure to qualified professors. SB 18 would not cancel tenure for professors who have it, but it would cut off young professors currently on the tenure track. The bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2024.

Tenure is not a lifetime guarantee of employment, as supporters of the bill have argued. Tenured faculty are subject to periodic reviews that examine their body of work. Tenure protects professors who want to embark on new paths of study or speak out on issues of public concern. Tenure confers immunity from retaliation, specifically, the threat of unemployment for politically motivated reasons–from the right or the left.

Removing tenure will also dissuade the top teaching and research talent from working in Texas. This will lower the quality of Texas’ institutions of higher education and have immeasurable negative impacts on the Texas economy.

SB 18 passed by a mostly party-line vote, with all Senate Republicans supporting the bill, and all Senate Democrats, except Sen. Cesar Blanco (D-El Paso), opposing it.

These bills are now headed to the House. There is still time to take action in opposition to these bills. Make sure to send Texas AFT’s e-letter, calling on your representative to defend higher education, and check out the higher education action page from our allies at Every Texan.

Retirement: House Pensions Committee Hears Bill that Would Reduce Retirement Flexibility, Texas AFT Retirees Push for COLA Next Monday

This Wednesday, Rep. Ryan Guillen laid out HB 2452 in the House Pensions, Investments, and Financials Services (PIFS) committee. This bill would give classroom teachers less flexibility in retirement by limiting their ability to retire midyear. This bill only targets classroom teachers, not any other TRS employee. Texas AFT opposes this bill on the grounds that it is unfairly burdensome to classroom teachers.

Next Monday, April 24, Texas AFT Retiree Plus members will be at the Capitol to push for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for TRS retirees. This session, COLA bills have made their way through the legislative process, but Texas AFT retirees are fighting for a more significant increase that accurately reflects the increases in a retiree’s cost-of-living due to inflation. The state must keep its promise to retired educators by investing in a significant COLA.

Texas AFT retirees will arrive at the Capitol on Monday for a press conference at 10 a.m., which can be viewed on a livestream. That afternoon, those retirees will make visits across the capitol to advocate for a significant COLA.