Texas lawmakers began the legislative session with expert advice in hand from several state plans to strengthen public education by expanding student learning, addressing the teacher shortage, and improving bilingual education. Instead, lawmakers spent hours in hearings and legislating on red-meat issues, including further classroom censorship. Expert recommendations from major state plans, including the Teacher Vacancy Task Force and Emergent Bilingual Strategic Plan fell by the wayside.
Lawmakers Worsened Censorship of Library Books and Instructional Materials
Classroom censorship hurts student learning. It stifles diverse and historically-marginalized perspectives, prevents youth from accessing inclusive and historically accurate books and instructional materials, and destabilizes culturally sustaining practices in public education. While students, schools and communities have successfully fought back against book bans and other anti-Black, anti-Latino and anti-LGBTQ+ actions at the local level (Serrano, 2023), Texas lawmakers continued on its harmful trajectory during the 2023 legislative session. New legislation requires state-mandated book censorship that further chills student and educator free and honest speech in lessons and classroom instruction, and substitutes religious advisors for certified school counselors.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 900, which creates an expansive and costly bureaucracy of book censorship at the state and local levels (Duggins-Clay, May 2023). It requires school libraries, private companies and the Texas Education Agency to assign ratings to books for inclusion of “prohibited concepts,” which are not clearly defined. Instead of promoting inquiry and free thought, the legislation props up deleterious local policies and practices resulting in thousands of books by or about Black, Latino, LGBTQ+ and other systemically-marginalized perspectives being banned from Texas schools. In July, two Texas bookstores and three national bookseller associations filed a lawsuit challenging the bill, arguing that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments because of its vague, overbroad and discriminatory terms (Schneid, 2023).
HB 1605 institutes a state-approved instructional materials list that adds incentives to overly comply with existing classroom censorship law (Latham Sikes, March 2023a). Touted as the “high-quality instructional materials” bill, it standardizes and incentivizes pre-approved materials from specific curricula vendors. The measure unfortunately includes incentives to over-interpret 2021 censorship legislation that prohibits teaching of concepts related to race, gender, and truthful accounts of history that have led to widespread classroom censorship, weakened school curricula and increased discriminatory school-based incidents against students.
IDRA testified: “Texas should absolutely invest in high-quality instructional materials for school districts and classrooms, but the conditions upon those materials should not come at the cost of teachers’ ability to meet student needs, student opportunities to be inspired, or for students to access accurate and honest curricula that reflect their realities” (Latham Sikes, March 2023a).
While this legislation will undoubtedly have grave consequences for student civil rights, IDRA and coalition partners successfully defended against other harmful censorship proposals, including multiple attempts to enact a Texas variation on “Don’t Say Gay” legislation (SB 8/HB 890) and efforts to further enshrine anti-democratic and biased principles into state curriculum standards. This included SB 1515, an effort to require the display of a version of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.
In addition, lawmakers failed to advance Senate Bill 13, an even more extreme book-banning bill that would have created local censorship councils to oversee school district library book inventories with subjective criteria. It would have eliminated legal protections against prosecution under state obscenity laws for materials that have scientific, educational or governmental value. (Duggins-Clay, March 2023)
Failure to Address Harms Caused by Censorship
In addition to doubling down on harmful censorship measures, the Texas Legislature failed to address the negative emotional, physical, social and educational impacts of censorship policies. Some educators hesitated to address identity-based bullying, inappropriately citing classroom censorship laws (Duggins-Clay, April 2023).
HB 4625, spearheaded by IDRA, would have instituted standards to prevent, track and remedy racial bullying and harassment (Duggins-Clay, April 2023). Students, families and educators traveled from Lubbock and the Rio Grande Valley to share their powerful stories of how censorship policies have created hostile environments and increased identity-based bullying and harassment (see video of IDRA’s news conference: https://idra.news/EndIDbasedBullyingEvent). However, the bill failed to advance.
Bullying and harassment, especially when unaddressed, along with the environment of classroom censorship, have detrimental effects on students and their sense of well-being. But the Legislature failed to meaningfully invest in school-based mental health resources, despite having a historic $32.7 billion budget surplus. Half of all Texas schools do not have a counselor or other mental health professional on campus, leaving more than half a million Texas students without any mental health services in school (New & Hacker, 2022). Instead of investing in school-based mental and behavioral health professionals, the Texas Legislature passed SB 763, allowing religious chaplains to act as untrained school counselors to students.
Little Action to Address Teacher Shortage or Improve Bilingual Education
Lawmakers entered the session with recommendations to address teacher vacancies and improve and expand bilingual education. Both plans, authored by TEA, resulted from hours of stakeholder input over the prior year. But the vast majority of these plans’ recommendations went ignored.
The Teacher Vacancy Task Force contained eight major recommendations to support the teacher workforce. While legislation concerning high-quality materials passed with censorship provisions (HB 1605), legislators left the remaining recommendations either without attention or subject to political deals that resulted in no action. These included opportunities to increase teacher pay, improve the teacher pipeline, expand training and mentorship, and incentivize acute shortage fields, such as bilingual and special education (Latham Sikes, March 2023b).
Similarly, the state’s Emergent Bilingual Strategic Plan, developed as directed by the last session’s SB 560 (TEA, Jan. 2023), contained eight legislative recommendations to improve and expand bilingual education in public schools.
Over a dozen bills advancing the plan recommendations were filed, but just a handful received a public hearing. Two progressed in the process but failed to become law. HB 2164, by Rep. Bobby Guerra, would have created a stronger monitoring system through TEA for quality bilingual/ESL programs and would have provided more training for all teachers and administrators to serve emergent bilingual students well (Piñón, 2023). The bill was passed by the Texas House but did not progress through the Senate.
SB 2497, by Sen. Mayes Middleton, would have enhanced data collection on bilingual programs in alternative language programs that operate without a certified bilingual education teacher, and it would have provided dual language immersion funding for verified programs (Latham Sikes, May 2023). However, in the final days of the legislative session, the bill was amended to allow limited bilingual education funding to be used outside of those programs, a measure IDRA and other bilingual education advocates opposed. It failed to pass the Texas House by a crucial deadline.
Ultimately, lawmakers took no meaningful action to enact the plan’s recommendations. The one positive exception was increased tuition scholarships for aspiring bilingual, ESL and Spanish language teachers at specific universities.
Students, families, educators and community members advocated responses to the real challenges that deserve state action. While some lawmakers championed public school funding and equitable education for students, the session overall was marked by regressive policies that do little to address real concerns and introduce new harms to students’ learning and success.
Adkison, M. (April 4, 2023). Democrats criticize House budget’s education provisions, DEI ban ahead of debate Thursday. CBS Austin.
Duggins-Clay, P. (March 27, 2023). Texas Should Prioritize Supporting Students and Educators, Not Expanding School Police and Guardians – IDRA Testimony Against House Bill 13 Submitted to the Texas House Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety.
Duggins-Clay, P. (April 17, 2023). Texas Must Prohibit and Prevent Identity-based Bullying in Schools – IDRA Testimony for HB 4625 Submitted to the Texas House Committee on Youth Health and Safety.
Duggins-Clay, P. (May 10, 2023). HB 900 Promotes Book Bans and Undermines Students’ Constitutional Right to Access Ideas – IDRA Testimony Against House Bill 900 Submitted to the Senate Education Committee.
Latham Sikes, C. (March 21, 2023a). Incentives for Instructional Materials that Enforce Classroom Censorship Compromise Students’ Education – IDRA Testimony against HB 1605 Submitted to the Texas House Public Education Committee.
Latham Sikes, C. (March 21, 2023b). Incentives for Instructional Materials that Enforce Classroom Censorship Compromise Students’ Education – IDRA Testimony against HB 1605 Submitted to the Texas House Public Education Committee.
Latham Sikes, C. (May 16, 2023). Texas Emergent Bilingual Students Should Have Quality Programs and Certified Teachers – IDRA Testimony on SB 2497 Submitted to the Texas Senate Education Committee.
New, B., & Hacker, C. (August 19, 2022). Half of all Texas school districts have no mental health services. CBS News.
Piñón, L. (April 4, 2023). Robust Program Monitoring and Training Strengthens Quality Bilingual Education in Texas Schools – IDRA Testimony for House Bill 2164 Submitted to the Texas House Public Education Committee.
Schneid, R. (July 25, 2023). Booksellers sue over Texas law requiring them to rate books for appropriateness. Texas Tribune.
Serrano, A. (March 31, 2023). Llano County officials must offer library books they’d removed, judge orders. Texas Tribune.
TEA. (January 2023). SB 560 Emergent Bilingual Strategic Plan. Texas Education Agency.
TEA. (February 2023). Teacher Vacancy Task Force Final Report. Texas Education Agency.
Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D., is IDRA’s deputy director of policy. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at email@example.com. Paige Duggins-Clay, J.D., is IDRA’s chief legal analyst. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2023, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June-July 2023 edition of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]