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Texas Bans Civics Lessons Involving Student Interactions With Elected Officials

Students have historically led social justice efforts that wouldn’t be possible without contact with elected officials.

Students and their parents participate in a "March For Our Lives" rally in downtown Orlando, Florida, on June 11, 2022.

Texas students have faced increasing restrictions in recent years on their education, from limiting discussions about race and gender in the classroom to regulating books in school libraries. The latest move by Texas politicians is hidden in plain sight under an existing 2021 ban that targets the teaching of “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” groups. The law, HB 3979, also prohibits schools and teachers from requiring or awarding credit for “direct communication” between students and their local, state, or federal politicians.

States across the country have implemented a series of highly restrictive education laws in recent years, but Texas is the first state to pass legislation banning students from communicating with elected officials [as part of school time or assignments]. The bill prohibits [schools and teachers from offering course credit or extra credit or making part of a course a student’s] “political activism, lobbying, or efforts to persuade members of the legislative or executive branch at the federal, state, or local level to take specific actions by direct communication.” Texas students say the law changes how young people engage in civics in school and how they view it outside of the educational setting.

Guillermo Muñoz-Calanche, a 17-year-old high school junior from El Paso, Texas, said the purpose of laws like HB 3979 is to undermine youth voices since they are more likely to lean democratic. He added that Republicans’ war on “wokeness” has been used to scare parents into thinking the education system is attempting to indoctrinate students and “downplay what progressives really want, what our generation really wants.”

Many teens across Texas feel their opinions are rarely represented. With laws like HB 3979, some fear their perspectives will be disregarded entirely.

“If these politicians don’t hear what the students feel, they’re gonna pass laws that influence our lives so greatly without even having our voice be represented,” said Katie Chou, a high schooler at Plano West Senior High School in Dallas.

Texas is one of 38 states that mandates a civics course, but some students say that the new law prevents students from engaging in the democratic process.

“It’s really a form of oppression and a form of trying to control us … When they’re trying to stifle what we’re trying to say, it’s a clear message to me that they don’t want us engaging in that sort of democratic process,” said Woodlands, Texas, high schooler Kendall Cooper.

Some students are also worried they will lose touch with lawmakers altogether as a result of the ban.

“A lot of issues within public policy and our society itself are due to the youth or have relation to youth, and without the voice of youth, there’s no way to truly entail what solutions can help solve these problems,” said Will Chen, a 16-year-old at Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas.

Teens who regularly interact with their representatives fear that they will be restricted. Alex Gonzalez, a 15-year-old at Franklin High School in El Paso, Texas, said her experiences working on a local political campaign as a high schooler have helped her become more comfortable sharing her political ideas with elected officials.

“I have spoken with [El Paso district attorney candidate] Nancy Casas about instilling stricter ordinances when dealing with animal welfare,” Gonzalez said, also noting Casas’ interest in education reform and helping students at underfunded schools. “By not allowing students to engage with elected officials, you are taking away students’ rights to see other pathways to get into politics.”

Gonzalez said the law will separate the community into those of voting age and those who are not and also change how students are involved in future organizing efforts.

High schoolers have historically led influential social justice efforts that wouldn’t be possible without interactions with elected officials. From the East LA walkouts in the ’60s that advocated for education reform to represent Latinxs to modern-day demonstrations like the March For Our Lives (MFOL) movement, which began in March 2018 after the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas high school, students have worked with their representatives both inside and outside the classroom to make themselves heard.

In the case of MFOL, an estimated 70,000 high schoolers participated in marches across the nation to protest lax gun laws in 2018, and the organization met with more than 70 offices to push forward policy changes. More than 250 gun violence prevention laws have been passed since then. While the better half of their team cannot legally vote, they utilize those who can advocate for causes that affect them.

Isra Hirsi, who led the U.S. youth climate strikes in 2019 at 16 years old, is another example of pivotal student-led change.

“We strike because we can. Because the media focuses on some and not others. But many can’t,” Hirsi wrote in an article for Grist. She helped mobilize thousands of students to skip school Friday, March 15, 2019, for the #FridaysForFuture international climate movement.

Several Texas teens have led lobbying and organizing efforts for state legislation. But HB 3979 is likely to change how these actions take place in the future, if they do at all.

“We can’t be fully equipped to understand how to form correct [political] opinions at 18 if we’re not exposed to it earlier,” Chou said. “I run a club with my friends called Politics for Teens. We hosted a youth voter drive where we asked elected officials with our school board and city council members to come to talk about the importance of voting and what these local entities do for students. We were able to register a lot of high school seniors, and because of this interaction, I was able to let my peers know what voting is and about local elections.”

Cooper, a high school organizer with March for our Lives Texas, said interactions with her elected officials are needed for her line of work.

“One of the recent bills that our [MOFL] legislation team was able to get recommended was HB 2076, which aims at prohibiting the ability of those convicted of dating violence to possess firearms, also known as the boyfriend loophole,” Cooper said. The bill made its way to Austin, where several legislative members of MOFL went to give testimony. “If lawmakers are able to say that students can’t do this through their schools, that students can’t go and speak to their elected officials, then how far are they willing to push this? What comes next?”

Teens are increasingly told to stay out of politics. Cooper worries this could result in teens staying silent on issues that can affect their lives.

“This law sets a very frightening precedent,” she said.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

Note: Editors at Truthout inserted a bracketed clarification into the second paragraph of this reprinted article to clarify the limits on the scope of what is actually banned by the bill. The title has also been updated to clarify that the ban affects what school assignments can contain, rather than criminalizing students’ independent actions outside of school.

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