Texas has become the first state in the nation to ban students from communicating with their elected officials as part of their civics education, a move that critics say undermines democracy and suppresses youth voices.
The ban was tucked into a 2021 law that also restricted how schools can teach about race and gender, following a nationwide trend of conservative backlash against what they call “woke” or “critical race theory” curricula.
The law prohibits schools and teachers from requiring or awarding credit for “direct communication” between students and their local, state or federal politicians, effectively barring students from engaging in real-world civics projects that address issues in their communities.
According to researchers at the free expression advocacy group Pen America, Texas is the only state nationwide to suppress students’ interactions with elected officials in class projects.
The law has had a chilling effect on civics education across the state, as teachers canceled time-honored assignments, districts reversed expansion plans with a celebrated civics education provider and a bill promoting student civics projects that received bipartisan support in 2019 was suddenly dead in the water.
“By the time we got to 2021, civics was the latest weapon in the culture wars,” state representative James Talarico, sponsor of that now defunct bill, said.
Talarico said his bill aimed to encourage students to participate in democracy by requiring them to complete at least one action civics project before graduation, such as writing a letter to an elected official, attending a town hall meeting or volunteering for a cause.
“Students are now banned from advocating for something like a stop sign in front of their school,” he said.
The ban was based on model legislation authored by conservative scholar Stanley Kurtz, who opposes “action civics” as a form of leftist indoctrination. Kurtz argues that action civics projects are often biased toward progressive causes and pressure students to adopt certain political views.
But supporters of action civics say it is a nonpartisan and effective way to teach students how to be informed and active citizens, regardless of their political leanings.
They point to examples of successful action civics projects in Texas, such as one that led to a new city ordinance in an Austin suburb to add student advisers to the city council, or another that resulted in a $6.5 million bond for school safety improvements in El Paso.
Students who have been involved in or planned to engage in such projects have expressed their frustration, fear and anger over the law, saying that it undermines their voice, their education and their democracy.
“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,” Woodlands high schooler Kendall Cooper said.
“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,” Coronado High School student Will Chen said.
– Texas: Civics Education Gutted by Law Banning Student Interaction with Elected Officials, Diane Ravitch’s blog, May 3, 2023
– Texas cracks down on ‘woke civics’, prismreports.org, May 26, 2023
– Texas Is the First State to Ban Student Interaction With Elected Officials, Truthout, May 31, 2023