Knocks on Texas Civics Bill Ring Hollow

Published May 4, 2021

National Review Online

Critics of a Texas bill that blocks “action civics” (mandatory political protesting for course credit) and Critical Race Theory (attacks on “whiteness,” “Euro-Centrism,” etc.) are off the mark. Their complaints are outlined in an article for the Dallas Morning News that does little to explain the powerful arguments in favor of the bill (HB 3979, and a companion bill in the senate, SB 2202). That’s a shame, because Texas is home to Tom Lindsay and Lucy Meckler, whose deeply thoughtful and well-researched critique of action civics for the Texas Public Policy Foundation is among the best and most influential such studies in the nation. Why not interview opinion leaders on both sides of the question, Morning News?

That said, the critics of HB 3979 do make a legitimate point about a small flaw in the bill that I believe can and should be corrected. Before I get to that worthy tweak, however, let’s look at the less meritorious complaints.

The educators questioned by the Morning News portray the bill as “politicized,” and warn against substituting the judgement of the legislature for the judgement of “professional educators.” The problem, however, is that supposedly “professional educators” throughout this country are increasingly abandoning non-partisanship and turning political. “We can’t be neutral!” is their chant. The practice of action civics allows, invites, and even mandates that teachers bring their politics into the classroom, by telling them to organize extracurricular student protests for course credit.

These protests purport to be for causes the children already favor. Unfortunately, a combination of teacher bias, peer pressure, and the hard-left orientation of the non-profits that push action civics means that these student demonstrations are invariably on the left. Lindsay and Meckler show this to devastating effect in their report. The advocates interviewed by the Morning News hold up as positive examples students who lobbied to name pecan pie the official Texas state pie. The reality, I’m afraid, as Lindsay and Meckler show, is mandatory after-school student lobbying for gun control, Green New Deal–style legislation, opposition to the border wall, branding the Founding Fathers as wealthy, white, economically motivated slaveowners, and more. (Read the report!) Advocates of action civics are aiming to produce a nation of Greta Thunbergs, not Paula Deens.

Nothing prevents students from getting politically involved after school. But why not do it the right way — on their own time, as genuine volunteering, and without pressure from schools and teachers likely to steer them toward their own preferred policies? Texas public schools serve families of every political stripe. We shouldn’t subject children to teacher biases and peer pressure over live political controversies.

If you want students to be informed and active citizens acquainted with current controversies, try high-school debate. That’s where young people study both sides of the argument, while learning that every side’s viewpoint has strengths and weaknesses (whether the Dallas Morning News reports on them or not). That’s real civics. Learn how to understand and respect both sides of the argument before you choose up sides and head out to protest.

The replacement of traditional debate with one-sided school-sponsored political demonstrations is a microcosm of what’s wrong with civil society today. If students participated in debate first, they’d show more respect for the freedom of speech of those with whom they disagree. Without debate and traditional civics, student demonstrations morph into shout-downs. That’s the mess we’re in, and we certainly don’t need more of it. Action civics nowadays is dominated by young people who descend on politicians to harangue, not to learn. Even California senator Dianne Feinstein has been mobbed by “action civics” kids more interested in making a scene than in listening to what she had to teach them about the legislative process.

Ah, but doesn’t action civics teach “media literacy,” and isn’t that good? Well, I’ve read the “media literacy” stuff they push nowadays. It’s the Democratic Party’s view of “fake news” in disguise. The new “media literacy” coursework lionizes the mainstream press and downright idolizes so-called media fact-checkers, despite their notorious bias. Media bias is barely mentioned. Instead, “media literacy” materials cleverly steer students away from, say, conservative blogs, in favor of the mainstream press. The “media literacy” materials I’ve studied were actually financed by the same social-media giants that make a practice of shutting conservatives out.

That brings us to critics of the HB 3979’s provision barring private financing of civics curricula. It sounds like a nice way to save the state money, but private financing of public-school curricula is a way for leftist foundations to end-run citizen control of the public-school system. It’s already happened in Illinois, where hard-left foundations pushing Critical Race Theory and action civics have “generously” stepped in to commandeer an entire state’s civic-education system. I guarantee you, if Texas allows private funding of its civics classes, a ton of wealthy donors from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the entire woke-capitalist empire will step in to “donate” curricula tailor-made to turn Texas blue.

Now let’s cover the complaints about the bill’s supposedly “chilling effect” on classroom discussion. There is one important and legitimate point here. The rest of the grousing is deeply misleading. Public K–12 schools are not colleges or universities. States and school districts rightly enjoy wide latitude to decide on curricula, and K–12 teachers have only the most limited free-speech rights when in the process of teaching. In that context, a teacher’s job is to deliver the approved curriculum, not to preach his own point of view. States have every right — and every obligation — to prevent teachers from putting students through exercises that attack their “whiteness” and such. That is what HB 3979 does, and that is a very good thing.

I do, however, recommend a small tweak. As currently written, HB 3979 and its companion senate bill do prevent teachers from even discussing certain concepts related to race and racism. This may be legally permissible, but it is not a good idea. Critical Race Theory may not be a particularly good thing, but it’s out there. Students ought to be able to ask about it, and teachers ought to be able to address it. After all, we do want teachers to be able to explain why Critical Race Theory is a bad idea.

It would be a simple thing to tweak HB 3979 along the lines of the language in my model bill with the National Association of Scholars. This would permit discussion of the most troubling concepts of Critical Race Theory, but would prevent teachers from teaching them in such a way as to inculcate them in students. This would show the right kind of respect to the critics of HB 3979, while still protecting the substance of the bill.

In general, however, HB 3979 actually frees teachers up from intrusive speech mandates favored by the advocates of action civics. Action civics actually forces teachers to discuss current controversial issues in the classroom. (Right before organizing all those student demonstrations. What a coincidence!) Well, some teachers prefer to teach civics via historical examples and some prefer to focus on current controversies. Why constrain a given teacher to do one or the other (if not to invite generally left-leaning teachers to indoctrinate their students on current politics)? Ordering overwhelmingly left-leaning teachers to bring politics into the classroom is a prescription for trouble. It’s also unfair to teachers with currently unfashionable views who rightly fear being “canceled” if they say the wrong thing.

In short, with an easily arranged tweak, HB 3979 is the way to go. It will protect Texas from the scourge of politicization currently sweeping across the country in the form of action civics and Critical Race Theory, and that protection is urgently necessary. Pass the bill, then pass the pie.

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

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