Civics Showdown in Texas

Published March 29, 2021

National Review Online

Texas is target number one in the Left’s play to turn the red states blue with a radicalized version of “civics.” What is variously called “action civics,” “civic engagement,” or “project-based civics,” requires K-12 students to engage in political protests, lobbying, and internships with advocacy organizations, all for course credit. The protests and lobbying are virtually always for causes on the left. In any case, it is totally inappropriate for schools to require extracurricular political activity, particularly when it subjects impressionable school children to teacher biases and peer pressure, as “action civics” invariably does.

The menu of practices that make up action civics has already been imposed by law in Illinois and Massachusetts. The coalition that brought action civics to Massachusetts gutted that state’s top-quality history standards and is currently leading a movement to impose leftist history and civics standards on the entire country. The Democratic bias of this coalition is painfully obvious.

The 2015 Illinois civics law, a Chicago-based application of Alinsky-style community organizing to school children, has recently been supplemented by statewide teaching standards that force critical race theory and “white fragility” training on even conservative downstate Illinois school districts. Now, iCivics, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based organization at the head of the national effort to impose the Illinois and Massachusetts models on the nation, is working overtime to conquer Texas. If Texas falls, the remaining red states cannot be far behind.

Several civics bills have been introduced into the Texas Legislature and they run the gamut from 1) a bill that would impose leftist political indoctrination patterned on the Illinois and Massachusetts models on Texas; 2) stealth bills that would do the same over time; 3) a bill that would do no immediate harm but would offer no protections against the encroachments of action civics; 4) bills that would encourage civics, properly understood, while also protecting against the abuses represented by action civics and critical race theory.

I will treat each of these bill-types in turn. Given the clear and present danger, the moral is evident from the start, however. Texas needs to pass a law that not only supports genuine civic education but that blocks the dangerously politicized practices activists are currently trying to impose on the state’s schools under the misleading name of “civics.”

Texas state senator Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat firmly on the left, has introduced S. B. No 1740, a radical bill that would import the Illinois and Massachusetts models to Texas. Zaffirini’s bill would have civics teachers discuss current political and cultural controversies. This is the first plank in the action-civics platform, and it effectively permits a left-leaning teacher corps to import its political biases into the classroom. Zaffirini’s bill also mandates training in “media literacy, including instruction on verifying information and sources and identifying propaganda.” In practice, teaching materials on this topic push students away from conservative sources and portray mainstream media outlets and fact-checkers as fonts of truth. “Media literacy” teaching materials almost always avoid the issue of media bias and instead push what amounts to the Democratic Party’s position on “fake news.”

Most importantly, Zaffirini’s bill mandates the completion of a “civics practicum” — twice — first in eighth grade and then in high school. The term “civics practicum” is a euphemism for organized student protests and lobbying for course credit. In effect, the legislature would here be authorizing the state’s public-school teachers to organize students to lobby the legislature itself for (invariably liberal) legislation, all under the guise of “civics.”

The other key plank of the action-civics platform is “service learning,” a euphemism for after-school student internships at (overwhelmingly leftist) community organizations for course credit. While Zaffirini’s bill doesn’t mandate “service learning,” it does create an opening for it by listing a series of “civic skills” to be inculcated. One of the approved “civic skills” is learning to “collaborate and engage in community organizing.” Here the Texas legislature would turn students into unpaid laborers for Alinsky-style community organizing groups (with indoctrination thrown in free of charge), already a routine practice in Illinois.

While these troubling practices are openly authorized, there are also stealth provisions in S.B. No. 1740 that could easily be used by state education bureaucrats to import Illinois-style teaching standards based on critical race theory. Zaffirini’s bill mandates that teachers be trained in techniques for “educating diverse student populations,” including the “educationally disadvantaged” and those with “limited English proficiency.” For many, this might call to mind remedial English programs, and such. This legislative language, however, could easily be used by education bureaucrats to impose “Culturally Responsive Teaching,” a pedagogy grounded in critical race theory and focused on battling “white privilege,” “Eurocentrism,” and “white fragility,” while promoting “gender fluidity,” and grading based on student participation in political advocacy rather than classroom performance.

To top it off, S.B. No. 1740 creates a dedicated funding system that would allow leftist private foundations to gain control of civic education in Texas. This is modeled on Illinois, where the private funding of civic education is permitted by law. The result has been de facto management of civic education by foundations dedicated to leftist activism and critical race theory. You can bet that rich donors in Hollywood and Silicon Valley will take advantage of this law to turn Texas blue. In the guise of “free” private money that would ease the burden on Texas taxpayers, woke out-of-state donors will effectively wrest control of the state’s education system from voters.

This bill is being pushed on Texas by Massachusetts-based iCivics, and its allies. As I hinted in my public exchange with the head of iCivics, Louise Dube, iCivics has made a concerted effort to fool Texas Republicans into sponsoring this clunker of a bill. That effort failed and the bill has been picked up by a Democrat instead. The handful of conservative educators and policy wonks who have foolishly allied themselves with iCivics in search of “bipartisanship” need to understand that this is what their names are being used for — to trick red-state Republicans into backing this pernicious bill, and others like it.

I wish this were the only bad civics bill proposed in Texas, but that is far from the case. The other bills are worse for being even stealthier than the already misleading Zaffirini bill. Representative James Talarico and Senator Nathan Johnson, both Democrats, have introduced identical bills, H.B. No. 57 and S.B. No. 229, which direct the state to offer courses and develop curricula in “project-based civics.” The problem is that almost no one understands that “project-based civics” means group protests and lobbying by students. These bills are filled with anodyne-sounding phrases that require students to “work cooperatively,” “identify issues in the community,” “develop solutions,” and create public policy “action plans.” Unless you already know a lot about action civics, it is almost impossible to recognize that the bill is authorizing group political protests and lobbying by school children.

In the last session of the Texas Legislature, what is now H.B. No. 57 cleared the House almost unanimously, largely because it looked like a harmless, non-controversial civics bill. At that point (and even today), almost no representatives had even heard of “action civics” or “project-based civics.” It wasn’t until the bill got to the Senate that anyone recognized the legislature was about to authorize after-school student protests and lobbying for course credit. The advocates of action civics are well-practiced at deception.

The most devious and potentially damaging bill of all may be Keith Bell’s H.B. No. 3211. Bell is a conservative Republican, and I can well understand how he might have been lured by lobbyists into carrying this bill. H.B No. 3211 authorizes the establishment of “civics academies,” schools dedicated to promoting civic education, and the language doesn’t overtly mandate action civics. Sounds okay. If you know the history of the action-civics movement, however, this bill is clearly recognizable as a stealth attempt to plant action civics in Texas.

Illinois remains the purest and most radical model of action civics. The groundwork for the 2015 Illinois action civics law was laid by the creation of “democracy schools,” also called, “civic readiness schools,” precisely like the “civics academies” established by H.B. No. 3211. Those Illinois “democracy schools” adopted the whole panoply of action-civics practices, from discussion of current controversial issues, to internships with leftist community organizations, to mandated student protests and lobbying via “action civics.” All of this came under the innocent-sounding heading of “civic skills.”

Bell’s H.B. No. 3211 includes a directive for civics academies to discuss current controversies and teach media literacy. The rest of the action-civics menu is covered under the vague heading of inculcating “civic skills” like learning how to “effectively engage.” You have to be pretty knowledgeable to realize that “civic engagement” is another common euphemism for action civics. In short, H.B. No. 3211 sets up a little kingdom within the Texas school system that will be run on the same radical principles Zaffirini’s bill tries to force on the entire state system immediately. In Illinois, the “democracy schools” ended up as a kind of trial-run for the law that eventually forced action civics on the entire state. No doubt, the same endgame is planned for Texas.

As in Illinois, there are even provisions in H.B. No. 3211 that allow “private providers” to “assist” in setting up the civics academies. That is an open invitation for liberal foundations, including the “experts” from Illinois, to come down to Texas at the invitation of left-leaning state bureaucrats and set up civics academies on the Illinois model.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, H.B No. 3211 gives the state education bureaucracy virtual carte blanche to revise the state’s education standards in line with the latest civics “research.” There’s plenty of “research” done by highly interested advocates of action civics for state bureaucrats to draw on. That means this bill is an open invitation for left-leaning state bureaucrats to import action civics materials from Illinois and Massachusetts, free from legislative oversight (a process I’ve warned about before).

Texas Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor’s civics bill, S.B. 2026, provides welcome relief from the aforementioned legislative disasters-in-the-making. Taylor’s bill directs the Texas State Board of Education to draw up a curriculum around the core features of a proper civics course, with specific direction to focus on documents such as the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and the writings of the Founders. Although state bureaucrats have some scope for interpretation, the directives are admirably specific and on the mark. In my ideal world, curricular issues would be handled chiefly at the local, rather than the state, level. That said, this is a workable civics bill.

Although Taylor’s bill has merit, overreaching leftist bureaucrats (and Texas does have some) might still find a way to get around it and impose action civics. It would not be difficult to take advantage of a provision in existing law calling on educators to “keep abreast of the development of creative and innovative techniques of instruction,” to start sliding action civics into the schools.

Given the raft of bills trying to quietly impose action civics on Texas, not to mention the scope for bureaucratic manipulation and overreach, the only real solution is a legislative ban on the whole menu of action civics techniques. That is exactly what is proposed in identical bills offered by Republican State Representatives Steve Toth and James WhiteH.B. No. 7979 and H.B. No. 4093. These bills contain the “positive” provisions of Sen. Taylor’s civics bill, while adding provisions that bar action civics and critical race theory. With one exception, the “negative” provisions of these bills are based on the “Partisanship Out of Civics Act,” model legislation I have published with the National Association of Scholars and explained here.

Like the Partisanship Out of Civics Act, the Texas bills by Steve Toth and James White protect teachers from being forced to discuss current political and social controversies, and encourage teachers to explore divergent and contending perspectives when they do choose to raise current debates. The Toth and White proposals also bar extracurricular political activity — like internships with lobby groups or out-of-school student protests — from receiving course credit. Training based on critical race theory is barred for teachers and other educators. Private funders are barred from grabbing control of the state’s civics programs as well.

The Toth and White bills add an additional provision not in the model Partisanship Out of Civics Act, however. This provision bars critical race theory from the K-12 curriculum. I am both deeply sympathetic to this provision and concerned about unintended consequences. This is not fundamentally an issue of free speech. K-12 teachers have an obligation to impart officially approved curricula and do not enjoy academic freedom on the university model. Nonetheless, banning ideas from the classroom, even where the right to do so exists, invites abuse and blowback. Beyond that, I worry about state curriculum bans overriding local authority. On the other hand, state education bureaucrats in Illinois have already imposed outrageous critical race theory-based teaching standards on the entire state, and without proper legislative warrant. Moreover, just as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act bars federal aid to colleges that discriminate by race, making school children feel guilty or ashamed of their skin color and its supposedly inborn “privilege” is well into the territory of intolerable discrimination that any state ought to be allowed to ban. The complex challenge raised by state-level curriculum bans on critical race theory is something I hope to take up in greater detail in the future.

That issue aside, Texas needs to pass the matching civics bills offered by Steve Toth and James White. If one of the action-civics bills on offer passes instead, or if overzealous education bureaucrats find a way to impose action civics on the sly, Texas classrooms will be irrevocably politicized, and leftist indoctrination will surely turn this great state blue.

One more point. A broad coalition has now organized to oppose action civics. Up to now, legislators could not be expected to recognize or anticipate this stealthy education initiative from the left. Henceforth, however, the stakes are out in the open. Should legislators impose leftist protests and indoctrination on K-12 systems in their states via “action civics,” voters will hold them responsible.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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