Tag Archives: speech

Senate bills threaten to chill educator speech

Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, April 1, 2019

The Senate State Affairs Committee met Monday, April 1, and considered two bills that present serious concerns about free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — particularly when it comes to educators.

Both bills relate to the use of public funds for political advertising, which is already prohibited by state law. ATPE agrees with the current statutes and ethics rules that prohibit public resources from being used for political purposes. Electioneering on school time and with school resources should be illegal. However, the two bills heard by the committee Monday morning would criminalize behavior that is not only nonpolitical, but in some cases even required under state law. Together, they threaten to undermine all of the positive work the Texas Senate has done for public educators so far this session.

Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) filed Senate Bill (SB) 1569, which would dramatically expand the legal definition of electioneering solely as it applies to educators.

Electioneering is currently defined as advocating for or against a candidate, political party, or ballot measure. For example: A communication created on school district time or using school district money in support of Proposition X or Candidate Y clearly constitutes electioneering and an unlawful use of public resources. As filed, SB 1569 would include activity that advocates for or against “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” Neither term is defined in law or in Sen. Fallon’s bill, and ATPE contends that each phrase is subject to widely varying interpretation. For example, extolling the virtues of American democracy and our free enterprise system could be considered advocating for a “political philosophy” under this bill – despite the fact that both are required elements of Texas public schools’ curriculum. Likewise, a sign on a school bulletin board promoting a food drive for Hurricane Harvey victims could easily be construed as advocating for “a matter of public interest” if SB 1569 were to be enacted.

Perhaps even more troubling, SB 1569 would expand the definition of “political advertising” to include any political communication “directed to an individual person or multiple persons through any form of communication (emphasis added).” This could treat private conversations between co-workers as political advertising and subject to criminal penalties. As a whole, SB 1569 would impose a separate set of restrictions on the speech of public school employees that is far more expansive than restrictions imposed upon any other category of public employees.

Read ATPE’s written testimony against SB 1569 here.

SB 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) aims to prevent third party organizations from sending political advertising to public e-mail addresses, subjecting the sender to a $100 fine per e-mail. This seemingly straightforward idea is complicated by a number of technical factors. First, most political websites allow a visitor to enter their e-mail address and receive automatic campaign updates. This simple process could potentially be abused, either intentionally or unintentionally through “bots” and e-mail spoofing, to rack up massive fines.

SB 904 also extends prohibitions against political advertising to include the use of public communications systems, including WiFi networks. This could have the absurd effect of criminalizing the act of accessing a campaign website from a personal mobile device while off the clock and sitting in a school parking lot. It could also jeopardize a majority of computer use in the Texas State Capitol, where visitors are offered free public WiFi and politics is a major topic of discussion.

Read ATPE’s written testimony against SB 904 here.

Public resources clearly should not be used for electioneering, but such activity is already expressly prohibited in state law. ATPE believes expanding current law in an attempt to broadly restrict the speech of educators as proposed by SB 904 and SB 1569 is unnecessary, discriminatory, and raises serious concerns about potential violations of the First Amendment. Taken together, these bills would likely have a severe chilling effect on educators’ speech.

We urge you to contact your state senator and ask them to OPPOSE SB 904 and SB 1569. ATPE members can use our simple tools at Advocacy Central to send a message to their legislators about these bills.

UPDATE (added 4/5/19): The Senate State Affairs Committee met again on Thursday, April 4, and voted to send these two bills to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation. The vote was 6-1 on both SB 1569 and SB 904. Sen. Judith Zaffirini was the only member of the committee to vote against the harmful bills. We urge educators to contact their senators and ask them to keep these bad bills from becoming law.

State Board of Education meeting wrap-up

The State Board of Education (SBOE) wrapped up its regular meeting today. During the meeting, the board addressed, at least in part, calls for a Mexican American Studies course and ensured that speech courses will continue to be offered in Texas high schools.

Earlier this week, the board was set to debate the merits of adding a Mexican American Studies course to the list of courses to be developed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). However, as it became apparent that one course focusing on a specific culture would beget many more course requests and that the waiting list for the creation of one course is two years long, advocates for the standalone course shifted their focus. Instead of putting all of their efforts behind the creation of a course covering a single cultural background, the board chose to examine an existing set of TEKS—Special Topics in Social Studies—that could be used to teach a class on any number of ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

Although this set of TEKS is not new, the board did, for the first time, choose to call for an instructional materials adoption for them. Much like the instructional materials for Languages Other Than English (LOTE), the materials will be specific to one ethnic or cultural background even though the TEKS are general (e.g., the board does not adopt instructional materials for LOTE; they adopt Spanish textbooks). Likewise, the board has not called for publishers to submit material for a general course in Special Topics in Social Studies, they have asked for publishers for materials for Mexican American Studies, African American Studies, Native American Studies and Asian American Studies. In addition to calling for materials, the board will, during their next meeting, look at expanding the Special Topics in Social Studies TEKS from a half credit course to a full credit course.

Also during the meeting, the board updated the list of courses that districts must offer to students. This item was primarily on the agenda to align the board rule with statutory mandates including the the addition of a course in Personal Financial Literacy. (Please note: This list of courses is separate from the rule that defines what courses a student is required to complete to earn his or her high school diploma. Although the lists are similar, the list of courses districts must offer exceeds the courses required to graduate under either the 4×4 graduation plans or the new foundation diploma. For example: By statute, districts are required to offer a health class but students are not required to take one.)

During the last SBOE meeting, the board removed the requirement that all students take a specific speech course, but added a new requirement that all districts certify students are taught specific speech-related skills. During this week’s meeting, the board decided that districts must continue to offer a high school course covering the Communications Applications TEKS, the primary speech class taught in Texas schools. Although students now potentially have more options for courses that fulfill their required speech skills, the board’s actions guarantee that one of the options will continue to be a traditional speech class.

Watch archived video of this week’s meeting.

SBOE approves new graduation requirements

Today the State Board of Education (SBOE) voted 14-1 on final rules to implement new graduation requirements mandated by last year’s House Bill (HB) 5. Facing pressure from many stakeholders with opposing viewpoints, the board struck a compromise today that ATPE believes will allow ample flexibility for school districts and students while helping ensure that students are prepared for post-secondary success.

At the center of the debate was the treatment of Algebra II, which prior to the passage of HB 5, was a statutorily mandated course for graduation under the Recommended and Advanced high school programs. Through HB 5, the legislature created a single high school graduation plan based on a foundation curriculum plus subject-specific endorsement areas. In doing so, legislators eliminated the specific mandate in statute that Algebra II be taken as the third math course required for graduation. Even though the statutes as amended by HB 5 no longer specify Algebra II as one of the required math courses, state law gives the SBOE authority to adopt additional or more specific graduation requirements beyond what the legislature mandates.

The board decided today that only students pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) endorsement under the new high school diploma structure should be required to take Algebra II. Students pursuing other endorsements may choose to take Algebra II or another math course from among a short list; that list will soon include two new advanced math classes, algebraic reasoning and statistics, which are currently being developed. The lone dissenting vote today came from SBOE District 1 member Martha Dominguez, who felt that Algebra II was an important factor in students’ college success and should be required for all students.

Education stakeholders also voiced much concern in the recent months of SBOE deliberations about the future of speech courses. While not required by law, the SBOE has required students to earn one-half credit in speech as a graduation requirement since 1996. HB 5 did not address the speech requirement, again leaving the board with discretion to decide whether or not to continue its requirement. The board’s preliminary proposal in November would have eliminated the speech requirement altogether. Recent surveys conducted by ATPE and by SBOE District 9 member Thomas Ratliff showed strong support among educators for continuing a speech requirement at the state level, but several school districts urged the board to eliminate the requirement. SBOE members settled this week on a plan to designate Communications Applications—the primary course used to fulfill the current speech requirement—as one of the courses that can satisfy the fourth-year advanced English course required by HB 5. The speech course will no longer be required, but districts must still ensure that all students master certain communications-related skills.

Read the Texas Education Agency’s press release on the new graduation plan approved today. Also, check out today’s press statement by ATPE State President Ginger Franks in response to the vote.