Karla Huerta, a UTEP senior Education major and Miner Teacher Residency participant, interacts with students from a 4th grade at Purple Heart Elementary School (SISD) in September 2019. (Photo courtesy of UTEP Communications)

Last week El Paso native Isabel Herrera asked a small group of Texas state senators in Austin to think critically about the implications of the legislation they had before them, Senate Bill 3.

She was one of about 50 students, educators, parents and education advocates who urged senators to vote against the bill that seeks to further restrict how public school teachers can teach about racism.

“Pushing forward a bill that makes it harder for students to learn about other cultures and experiences causes nothing but harm,” the incoming St. Edward’s University senior said. “Young people of color in our schools are the future of Texas. They deserve to see themselves in our textbooks and in our curriculum and in our classrooms.”

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, filed the legislation in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s call for lawmakers to pass a stricter anti-critical race theory bill during the special legislative session. Hughes’ bill, however, does not explicitly reference the theory. Only 10 people spoke in favor of it.

But the protests, at least for now, were all for naught. On Friday the Texas Senate voted 18-4 to approve his bill.

Isabel Herrera, left, testified in opposition of Senate Bill 3 during the July 15 Senate Committee on State Affairs.

Critical race theory is used in graduate-level courses to examine how U.S. policies, laws and institutions perpetuate systemic racism and inequalities. Herrera, a 2019 graduate of Valle Verde Early College High School, said she wasn’t exposed to the theory until college, a sentiment echoed by teachers and professors who testified at the Senate committee hearing.

Though Hughes acknowledged critical race theory is not “pervasive” in Texas public schools, he likened its teachings in a handful of schools to a spark that could grow into an inferno. 

“Since it is so prevalent in higher education and since we see it popping up in public schools, that’s why it needs to be addressed. … When a fire starts in the kitchen, we don’t wait for it to spread to the living room and bathroom before we start to put it out,” Hughes said prior to the Senate vote.

“This bill is meant only to provide guardrails against imposing division and animosity on our students,” he said.

SB 3 now moves to the Texas House, where its future is less clear. The lower chamber currently lacks quorum — the minimum number of lawmakers needed to vote on legislation — after House Democrats left for Washington, D.C., in an effort to block the passage of restrictive voting bills.

State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who joined his House colleagues in D.C., was not present for the vote. Through his communications director, Blanco said he would have voted against it. The three Democratic senators present who represent border districts voted against it, including one who invoked the August 2019 massacre in El Paso to decry the legislation.

SB 3 expands upon House Bill 3979, which lawmakers passed during the regular session and goes into effect Sept. 1.

Whereas HB 3979 prohibits districts from compelling social studies teachers to discuss current events or controversial public policy issues, SB 3 extends this to all teachers, regardless of subject or grade level. Though teachers could still choose to discuss such topics, they couldn’t give deference to a single perspective and instead must “explore that topic from diverse and contending perspectives.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, asked Hughes how a teacher could discuss an event like the El Paso shooting or the Sutherland Springs church shooting, which “clearly should not be explained neutrally,” from diverse perspectives. The alleged Walmart shooter posted a manifesto warning of a Hispanic invasion before he committed his killing spree, which left 23 people dead. 

Teachers could explore the ways families who lost loved ones were affected differently than bystanders who weren’t wounded “and would have all kinds of things to grapple with,” Hughes said.

SB 3 also removes a list of required teachings and readings from HB 3979 related to Native American history, women’s suffrage, the civil rights and Chicano movements, and the history of white supremacy — a point of contention for many people who spoke against the bill.

While those areas of history can still be taught, it’s the State Board of Education’s role to require them and not the Texas Legislature, Hughes said.

SBOE Chair Keven Ellis, R-Lufkin, said during the committee meeting that many of those historical areas are already part of the state’s required social studies curriculum.

Teachers and students, however, disagreed.

Students’ exposure to diverse communities is already lacking, Herrera said. It wasn’t until she took a Chicano literature course in college that she learned about leading figures in the Chicano movement, she added.

“That is my history, that is generations of people, and I didn’t get to learn about it in the classroom,” she said. “I didn’t get to see myself represented to the same extent as my white classmates did. Students shouldn’t have to grow up and then understand so much history that they’ve missed out on because the curriculum doesn’t cover (it), just to make other students a little more comfortable.”

Cover photo: Karla Huerta, a UTEP senior Education major and Miner Teacher Residency participant, interacts with students from a 4th grade at Purple Heart Elementary School in September 2019. (Photo courtesy of UTEP Communications)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.