A surprise sine die for the Texas Legislature’s second special session of 2021
Retirement | TRS | Social Security Texas Legislature COVID-19 Curriculum | Instruction
Date Posted: 9/03/2021 | Author: Andrea Chevalier
The second special session wrapped up dramatically Thursday night as leaders in the Texas Senate, House, and Governor’s office negotiated passage of at least a handful of their priorities. Though each chamber gaveled out “sine die” with only a few days left on the clock (just in time for a holiday weekend), Governor Greg Abbott was successful in obtaining passage of many of the items he outlined for the session’s agenda. Here is a look at the education laws of this special session – dead and alive.
The following bills made it through the process and await the governor’s signature:
Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) is essentially a “do-over” of the laws created in the regular session through the ATPE-opposed House Bill (HB) 3979, which just went into effect on Wednesday, Sept. 1, and has a variety of impacts on social studies curriculum and teaching. During the regular session, House members made a long list of changes to HB 3979, which the Senate and Gov. Abbott opposed but were unable to remove, prompting the governor to direct lawmakers to revisit the legislation during both of this summer’s special sessions. SB 3 sought to repeal and replace the House language of HB 3979 while adding new provisions, such as a civics training academy for teachers that would be offered by the Texas Education Agency.
The House Public Education (HPE) Committee took testimony on a similar bill last week on Monday, HB 28, and later voted to approve SB 3 in a formal meeting on Tuesday of this week. During the vote, some HPE Committee members, with both Republican and Democratic, expressed consternation about moving the bill forward, ultimately voting to advance it with assurances that the bill’s House sponsor, former HPE Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), would work to improve the bill. During consideration of SB 3 on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Huberty added two amendments that improved the bill, though it still contains many problematic provisions for educators.
Rep. Huberty’s floor amendments to SB 3 add an advisory board of educators, appointed by the commissioner, to develop the civics training program for teachers. The House amendments also address an aspect of HB 3979 that was considered one of the most problematic mandates for educators – the requirement that educators who choose to teach about a “current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue” discuss those topics from “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Under SB 3, if signed by the governor, the law will no longer reference “current” events and will now specify that educators who choose to discuss controversial issues must explore those topics “objectively and in a manner free from political bias.” The same amendment also preserves immunity for educators in the classroom by making it clear that such discussions do “not create a private cause of action against a teacher, administrator, or other employee of a school district or open-enrollment charter school.”
The House and Senate stood at ease for much of the late afternoon Thursday while several lawmakers met behind-the-scenes to discuss the possibility of additional changes to SB 3. After a lengthy negotiation, Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), a decades-long educator and former agriculture teacher, successfully added two amendments to SB 3 – the first aimed at avoiding unintended consequences for students in Career and Technical Education (CTE). Legislators from both sides of the aisle raised concerns that students would lose the ability to earn credit for internships and work-based programs under the law as proposed. As amended, SB 3 will allow CTE teachers to continue offering course credit for internships, even if students work for entities that engage in lobbying, and Rep. VanDeaver’s second amendment enables teachers to continue to let students write to their elected officials as part of a classroom activity (as long as the teacher doesn’t influence the content of the student’s communication).
The House approved the amended bill by a vote of 84 to 41. Later Thursday evening, the Senate accepted the House amendments to SB 3 and voted 18-13 to send the bill to the governor.
Lawmakers also passed the ATPE-backed SB 7 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) provides a one-time supplemental payment or “13th check” to retired educators, up to $2,400. The payment must be made by January 2022. Funding for this bill was dependent on the passage of HB 5, which also happened Thursday night before lawmakers headed home.
SB 9 by Huffman had less fanfare than the other education bills but was also a “do-over” bill after the governor vetoed its predecessor, SB 1109, during the regular session. SB 9, an ATPE-supported bill, calls for students to receive instruction on the prevention of child abuse, family violence, and dating violence. Gov. Abbott vetoed the bill in the regular session because it did not include a provision allowing parents to opt their children in or out of the instruction, which SB 9 now includes.
SB 15 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) expands virtual education options for school districts and open-enrollment charter schools. Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney) carried similar legislation that died on the calendar in the final hours of the regular session. Virtual schooling was placed on Gov. Abbott’s call for the second special session. During its consideration on the House floor last Friday, Rep. Bell added to SB 15 an amendment, negotiated with Sen. Taylor and the governor’s office, that will significantly limit the number of students in a virtual program eligible for state funding. Specifically, students who were in a virtual program for more than half of the last school year must have earned a C or better grade in English, math, science, and social studies, passed their STAAR tests, and not been chronically absent in order to qualify for continued virtual funding. Additionally, any student who has 10 or more absences after entering a virtual program during the current school year will lose their funding eligibility. These changes call into question the utility of the bill, which ATPE opposed, as a COVID-19 relief measure. Rep. Huberty also amended SB 15 on the House floor to specify that districts cannot “coerce any teacher to agree to an assignment to teach a full-time local remote learning program.” The Senate concurred in the House amendments to SB 15, approving the final bill Wednesday.
HB 5 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood) is the supplemental appropriations bill that will fund the Legislature and related agencies, as well as several bills passed during the special session. It was the very last measure passed by the Senate before adjourning Thursday. HB 5 restores legislative branch funding, including money for legislative employees’ pay and benefits, which Gov. Abbott eliminated through his line-item veto of the budget bill in the regular session. The bill also covers the costs associated with SB 3, foster care capacity, cybersecurity, and more. Importantly, HB 5 provides over $700 million in funding for the “13th check” for retired educators authorized through SB 7.
The following bills did not reach the finish line during the second special session:
- HB 28 by Rep. Steve Toth (R-Woodlands) would have accomplished many of the goals of SB 3, such as establishing a civics training program for certain social studies teachers and eliminating many of the curricular standards added by the Texas House to HB 3979 in the regular session. Alarmingly, HB 28 would have also mandated that every teacher post on a monthly basis a full list of instructional materials and resources used in each of their classes, even though parents can already request such materials. ATPE strongly opposed HB 28, which did not make it out of committee.
- Though Abbott’s special session included an item related to prohibiting mask mandates in public schools, no such bill made it through, ostensibly leaving it to the courts to decide whether the state or local authorities can make decisions about mask requirements. HB 141 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) is an ATPE-opposed bill that would have stripped local control by prohibiting any and all mask mandates for students in public schools. HB 164 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) is an ATPE-supported bill that would have allowed (not required) districts to set face covering policies as they see fit. Neither bill was ever voted on by the HPE Committee. Similarly, the Legislature declined to pass any bills pertaining to vaccine mandates.
- HB 233 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) also failed to make it to the governor’s desk, despite efforts to speed it through the House and over to the Senate in the final hours of the special session. HB 233 would have made several changes to how the accelerated instruction requirements of HB 4545, passed during the regular session, are implemented. In a hearing Monday night by the HPE Committee, school district officials testified that meeting the requirements of HB 4545 that have already taken effect this school year, such as a 30-hour tutoring requirement for students who failed their STAAR exam, are difficult amid the pandemic and related staffing challenges. As a clean-up measure, HB 233 would have raised the student-teacher ratio for the tutoring groups, limited the STAAR assessments that trigger accelerated instruction to only math and reading rather than all subjects, given students an additional year to perform satisfactorily on their assessment before accelerated instruction is implemented, and provided some authority for waivers of the requirements. Though the bill would have provided immediate relief to school districts, the Senate declined to consider HB 233 before adjourning.
- SB 2 by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) would have required that University Interscholastic League (UIL) teams prohibit students from competing in athletic events that do not align with the student’s biological sex assigned at birth, excepting a female student who wants to participate in a male event that does not have an available female equivalent. ATPE opposed SB 2 because it would have created an unfunded mandate and substantial new burden for school districts and public charter schools to collect and maintain additional paperwork and incur costs associated with providing female students with equivalents to male sports events that are not available to females. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has already asked the governor to put the controversial legislation on the agenda for another special session.
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