May 24, 2021: Bill limiting free speech in classrooms passes both chambers; A full update heading into last week of the session

Bill limiting free speech in the classroom passes both chambers

Senator Borris Miles debating on the Senate FloorSen. Borris Miles of Houston making points in opposition to HB 3979 on the Senate Floor Friday. Watch select video clips of the debate.

A bill we opposed, HB 3979 (Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands), which limits the free speech and ideas of teachers, students, and state agency employees, passed the Senate in an abrupt late-night session. The prohibitions in the bill are broad and may be interpreted in ways that could limit teacher speech and student engagement.

Texas AFT has strongly opposed this bill, and we are far from alone in our opposition. Scores of historians along with over 70 educational organizations, consisting of students, educators, and superintendents from across the state of Texas, opposed the bill. We want to thank the senators who stood up for teachers and against this disrespect to the teaching profession.

The bill returns to the House, where the chamber will decide whether to accept Senate amendments or head to a conference committee.

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Looking up into the spiraling floors of the Texas Capitol domeLegislative Update

We are now in the final full week of the legislative session, which ends next Monday, May 31. The conference committee for the state budget has made its decisions to reconcile House and Senate versions of the bill. We will have more on the budget after a final vote from both chambers.

  • SB 1365 (Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston), the bill relating to accountability measures and the process for state takeovers of school districts, was delayed over the weekend due to a procedural error and is set for a vote again in the House on Tuesday.
  • The House voted early this morning to concur on Senate amendments on HB 1603 (Dan Huberty, R-Houston), which makes individual graduation committees a permanent fixture of Texas’ public school system. Individual graduation committees support students who have failed to perform satisfactorily on end-of-course tests and provide them with an alternative path toward graduation. These committees allow students facing language barriers, severe testing anxiety, or learning disabilities to stay on the path to graduation and are an effective way to evaluate students. While Texas AFT supports this bill, the Senate did add a problematic amendment that allows the commissioner to investigate any campus where 10% of students receive diplomas through IGCs. The bill now heads to the governor.
  • Previously, the Senate passed SB 29 (Charles Perry, R-Lubbock), which would discriminate against transgender students by forcing them to “compete in sports associated with their biological sex as determined at or near birth.” The bill initially was defeated in the House Public Education Committee but revived in a retaliatory move by the committee chair. The bill, which Texas AFT opposes, is on Tuesday’s House calendar.
  • HB 1525 (Dan Huberty, R-Houston), the “clean-up” bill for the 2019 HB 3 school finance law, is on the Senate intent calendar. But like many omnibus bills at this stage of the session, it has been loaded up with pet lawmaker projects and specious policy initiatives.
  • HB 1468 (Keith Bell, R-Forney) would create curriculum and eligibility requirements for school districts to implement their own local remote learning programs to qualify for state funding. The bill previously passed the House with two amendments, including a Sunset provision by Rep. Ken King. HB 1468 was heard in the Senate Education Committee on Saturday and voted out the same day.
  • HB 699 (Jon Rosenthal, D-Cy-Fair) passed the Senate last week, and the House concurred on Senate amendments, sending the measure to the governor. The bill—named “Riley’s Rule” after the student who inspired it—would require school districts to excuse absences and grant promotion to students with serious or life-threatening illnesses.
  • SB 179 (Sen Eddie Lucio, Jr., R-Brownsville) would require districts to adopt a policy requiring counselors to spend at least 80% of total work time on duties that are components of the statutorily mandated counseling program. This would exclude time spent administering assessment instruments. Texas AFT supports this bill and the companion bill HB 589 by Rep. Mary González, which she discussed in our town hall with counselors in February. SB 179 passed the Senate in April and the House on Sunday, paving the way for a final vote today.
  • SB 487 (Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola) claims to simply grant the same zoning exemptions to charter schools as those received by real public schools. However, SB 487 fails to address the lack of public notice and opportunity for public input from elected officials and the public in charter school expansion and ignores the fact that recent research has shown charter schools and school districts are treated mostly the same in the zoning and development process. Texas AFT was glad to see Hughes amended the bill to repeal a special exemption charters currently have in law allowing them to build anywhere in cities with a population under 20,000 (which is about 94% of incorporated areas in Texas), as well as other amendments that clarify that charter schools do not have eminent domain power and removes their exemption from impact fees. That said, Texas AFT still opposes the bill needlessly seeking to limit local control over where charter schools can locate school facilities in our communities. SB 487 passed the Senate and is on the House calendar for a vote as early as today.
  • SB 348 (Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham) would grant parents authority to observe virtual instruction and review any teaching or instructional materials, or other teaching aids, provided to the parent’s child while the child is participating in virtual or remote learning. The bill passed the Senate earlier this month and passed the House Public Education committee last week.
  • SB 288 (Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo) and HB 2109 (Gene Wu, D-Houston) are bills that would change return-to-work provisions for TRS retirees, including reducing penalties and also providing allowances for returning to work during a declared disaster. SB 288 passed the Senate in April and the House on Sunday, paving the way for a final vote today.
  • SB 560 (Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville) would develop a strategic plan for the improvement and expansion of high-quality bilingual education. Texas AFT supported this bill and its companion HB 2258 by Guerra. SB 560 passed the Senate in April and the House on Sunday, paving the way for a final vote today.
  • SB 2094 (Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood), is a companion to HB 4545 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). While Texas AFT has lingering concerns regarding the bill, particularly around how teacher assignments will be managed and class size ratios maintained, the bill has come a long way from where it started. The Senate bill removes grade promotion requirements tied to STAAR tests for grades 5 and 8 and establishes accelerated learning committees and instruction for students who do not perform satisfactorily on standardized tests in grades 3, 5, and 8, or on end-of-course exams. The bill also repeals the requirement that schools administer state exams to students after failing an exam; prohibits a school from pulling a student from recess for accelerated instruction; and requires that students in grades 4, 6, and 9 who do not perform satisfactorily be placed in a classroom with a certified teacher the following year. The bill, as substituted in the Senate, removes provisions granting the commissioner additional authority over assessments that were included in the original bill. The House committee substitute also removes language in the bill that would have created outcomes-based funding based on student performance and eliminates language allowing for a carve-out of instructional materials allotment funds for use in accelerated instruction programs. The bill is set to be heard in the House on Tuesday.

Action Items

  • SB 321 (Joan Huffman, R-Houston) changes retirement rules for new public employees (ERS). This bill scraps reliable, classic, defined benefit pension plans for a riskier “cash balance” plan for new employees, a less reliable retirement benefit. It is opposed by the Texas AFL-CIO and is on a major state calendar in the House for Tuesday. You can show solidarity with state employees by sending an e-letter to representatives here. 
  • SB 14 (Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe), which will strip local elected officials of all power to enact workplace workplace protections and benefits like sick leave, rest breaks, and fair hiring, could head to the House floor Tuesday. You can tweet your opposition to the bill here.
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Governor issues order to prohibit school districts from requiring masks

Gov. Greg AbottThis past Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order prohibiting schools and most other public institutions from requiring masks after June 4. While Texas AFT believes that districts should be constantly monitoring local COVID-19 metrics to see if safety protocols need to be updated, the governor’s decision was hasty and lacks consideration of local circumstances.

“While vaccinations have provided a foundation for safe returns to school, we still aren’t at a point when kids under 12 can be vaccinated, so it is unconscionable for the governor to make this decision now,” said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. “CDC guidance still states that all students and staff should wear masks, and Gov. Abbott shouldn’t confuse the situation and ignore science unless CDC guidelines change.”

Pfizer’s trials on children 2-12 could be complete as early as September, which also could change safety protocols. Many districts, following new CDC guidance, already had relaxed mask and social distancing rules for outside activities at school. Abbott’s order left school boards across the state scrambling to meet and change mask requirements.

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AFT Teach 2021
AFT’s next biennial professional learning conference, TEACH (Together Educating America’s Children), will be held virtually July 6-10, 2021.

TEACH 2021 will feature:

  • Inspiring speakers on key issues, like rebuilding academically from the pandemic and creating anti-racist communities
  • Engaging cross-curricular sessions with meaningful tools and resources to use in your school
  • Solutions to ensure students’ social emotional learning and the freedom to thrive
  • Opportunities to collaborate with colleagues

Register now! You can also join the TEACH 2021 community on Share My Lesson to review conference content from 2019, find related resources, and join the discussion about what you hope to see at TEACH 2021.


Bright colored lines and text of Vision, Strategy and PowerTexas AFT will hold its biennial convention virtually on June 25-26. The Texas AFT Convention is the highest governing body of our state union. Delegates have the power to set the general policies of the organization by adopting convention resolutions, amending the constitution and by-laws, and electing the Texas AFT president and secretary-treasurer.

Those interested in being delegates for local unions should contact your union directly for more information. Guests also are welcome to register for and attend the convention. See our Convention 2021 page for more information. Deadline to register is June 15.

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