The history of Juneteenth, declared a federal holiday Thursday, could be taught under a new Texas law dealing with state social studies curriculum, the bill author says, but some fear parts of the legislation that deal with the teaching of white supremacy and slavery could be struck during a special session.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3979 on Tuesday, calling the legislation a “strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas.” The bill, which goes into effect Sept. 1, deals with how educators teach current events, history and race. Abbott said in a statement “more must be done” and announced the issue will be part of a special session agenda.
Abbott’s signing of the bill aligned with a push in Congress for Juneteenth to be a federal holiday. President Joe Biden — joined by Opal Lee of Fort Worth, who for decades advocated for the holiday to be recognized at the federal level — signed a bipartisan bill Thursday making the designation official.
“The excitement that many of us and the relief and the gratitude that many of us feel now that Juneteenth will become a federal holiday is really overshadowed by this bill,” said Altheria Caldera, a policy fellow at the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association. The group opposed the bill during the legislative session.
The Republican author of the Texas law, Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands, says it does not prevent the teaching of Juneteenth in Texas schools. The holiday commemorates the announcement of General Order No. 3, which proclaimed the freedom of slaves in Texas. The announcement came on June 19, 1865, nearly two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Why wouldn’t you be able to talk about Juneteenth?” Toth said. “Why wouldn’t you be able to talk about racism in America? Why wouldn’t you be able to talk about Jim Crow? The bill is really clear, there’s nothing in it that says you can’t teach history.”
Critical Race Theory involves looking at racism’s impact on society. Supporters of the bill say it’s needed to make sure teachers don’t push a political ideology in classrooms, but opponents fear students will be limited in their ability to think critically about history and current events, according to a House Research Organization bill analysis.
The version bill sent to Abbott’s desk included a number of House amendments that Caldera said were intended to make curriculum more well-rounded and reflective of the history and experiences of students of color. That included an amendment by Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat, about teaching the history of white supremacy and slavery, and the ways in which it is morally wrong. Toth was a co-author of the change.
With the House amendment, teachers should be OK teaching about slavery and topics like Juneteenth, Caldera said. But she fears it and other House changes will be removed during a special session.
“That’s something that we have to pay really close attention to, because otherwise there would be some ambiguity around whether teachers have the authority, the autonomy to teach about slavery and Juneteenth,” Caldera said.
Asked what the new law means for the teaching of Juneteenth in Fort Worth, school district said it is awaiting guidance from state education officials, spokesperson Clint Bond said.
The bill states that teachers cannot be compelled to discuss “a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” Teachers who discuss such topics with students must do their best to “strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective,” according to the legislation.
Caldera called the part of the bill dealing with current events “probably the most important challenge to the teaching of Juneteenth here in Texas.”
“Here in Fort Worth we’re at the end of the school year, but ... this issue has made national and maybe even international news, so this is a current event that is worthy of discussion in classes throughout our state and here in our local community,” Caldera said. “It is worthy of discussion, but teachers who do so under this bill would just be able to discuss it neutrally. That this is what happened, this is why Juneteenth is celebrated, but teachers won’t be able to say what happened here to enslave African-Americans was wrong.”
Toth said the injustice of slavery could be taught under the bill.
“Where do you see that in my bill that you can’t talk about that,” he said. “That doesn’t appear anywhere in the bill, that you can’t talk about the injustice of slavery.”
The Texas Democratic Party recently drew attention to the signing of the Texas bill as Juneteenth became a federal holiday. They also pointed out that the new law bans the teaching of The New York Times’ 1619 Project. Texas Democratic Party Vice Chair Carla Brailey questioned, “How will Texas students learn about this important new federal holiday if their teachers are barred from discussing it?”
“Having white history overrepresented in public education while simultaneously banning the discussion of the negative impacts of that history is itself an example of institutional racism,” Brailey said. “Texas history is as diverse as the people who live here. We deserve to not only be included in the teaching of that history, but to have unfettered access to and discussion about the true foundation of our country.”
Toth said he expects one item that will be addressed during the special session is making sure “agencies of the state of Texas do not use critical race theory as a condition of employment.” Toth said people unwilling to take critical race theory courses or classes or orientation classes should not be fired for not doing so.
Toth did not rule out the amendments from the Texas House of Representatives being removed or altered in a special session.
“Once you add critical race theory to the bill, I’m not gonna guarantee anything, what’s going to happen in the House or what’s going to happen in the Senate,” he said.