Participating in the process: Students lobby for Texas bill to improve civic education

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Update Thursday, HB 3009 received preliminary approval from the Texas House after an amendment. 

Amid halls full of senior Texas lobbyists and lawmakers who’ve been legislating for decades, a group of St. Edward’s University students made their way through the Texas Capitol.

They’re lobbying for House Bills 3008 and 3009 introduced by Representative James Talarico (D- Round Rock) and Representative Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin). Together, the pair of bills set up and direct a civic education fund to fuel student projects and the educators who are working on those projects.

Students in a St. Edward’s University lobbying class actually wanted to get involved with the civic process of creating this bill, so they helped with talking to the representatives involved and going over policy details.

“We helped with adjusting certain terms and adjusting certain word usage in the original bill layout and we helped to clear things up and make things more approachable from both sides,” explained 21-year-old Skyler Jon Garza, a student at St. Edward’s in the legislative process class. 

Garza and his classmates are hoping these bills, one of which is set to be heard on the House floor Tuesday, empower more young Texans to get involved in their communities. But with timing Tuesday, it appears the bill will instead be heard on the House floor later in the week. 

Civics education bills

These civics education courses detailed in the bills would teach students the relevance of public policy; the structure of federal, state and local governments; the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship; and how to identify problems or potential solutions in their communities.  

If the bills are signed into law, they would offer civics education for Texas students in public schools from fourth grade onward, giving students the chance to participate in a civic education project and helping to prepare educators for such projects. Priority for this funding would be given to school districts in which at least 40 percent of their students are economically disadvantaged, the bill states. 

Currently, in Texas, there is not a statewide course called “civics,” though those courses could exist on a district level, the Texas Education Agency explained. TEA has many Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements for social studies, with opportunities for high school students to take courses in United States Government, Sociology and Personal Financial Literacy. 

“We have plenty of courses in our current curriculum for U.S. History, World History, Texas History that teach our students to look back and learn from the lessons of the past, but we have far too few courses that teach our students to look forward and apply those lessons to the present,” said Talarico on Tuesday. “And, that’s what our civics bill is trying to do, our bill requires that students get project-based civics education twice in their educational career, once in middle school and once in high school.”

“I think in this building, Republicans and Democrats agree that the greatest threat to our democracy is not each other, the greatest threat to our democracy is apathy, this corrosive indifference to civic life,” Talarico said.

Talarico continued, “That apathy is demonstrated in that our state has some of the worst civic health indicators in the entire country. We have incredibly low voter turnout, we have a low percentage of folks who volunteer in the community or who advocate here at the Capitol and that’s a real danger to the democratic process.”

College students calling for change

The students in the St. Edward’s University class are part of a special course that meets only when the Texas legislature is in session. 

 David Thomason, an Assistant Professor of Political Science a St. Edward’s, leads this class. Thomason is a registered lobbyist with more than 20 years of legislative and lobbying experience under his belt. At the start of this semester, he worked to find bills that his students could work on and get behind.

“I was looking for something we could do this session that would have a meaningful impact in Texas,
 we came up with kind of a joint-effort to draft legislation on civics education projects in high schools around Texas,” Thomason explained. 

“This is really the first time we’ve been this heavily engaged in actually going out to the Capitol and lobbying, advocating, learning how the process works by doing it,” he said.  

He hopes that both the students in his class and the K-12 students who would benefit from the bills might get the tools they need through this process to one day become lawmakers themselves in the Texas Capitol. 

“I see it as a big experiment on our part to apply what they’re learning in the class, and it’s working,” Thomason said, noting that this class in previous years has allowed students to go on to careers in politics and public service. 

The students have decided to call this effort supporting the two civics bills “Civics for Y’all.”

Garza, a student who is about to graduate, believes what he’s learned through this class will help him as he works in the policy world after college. 

“I hope one day that I will be a public servant and hopefully serve the people and that’s partly why I wanted to get involved in this class,” Garza said. “Hopefully one day it helps me understand the process and best achieve the goals I see best fit.”

Garza believes giving students across Texas the hands-on experience of a civics education process will help them to be lifelong participants in the political process. 

“I feel like they will carry those skills onward into the future, possibly passing something with the school board or helping to create something better in the community such as picking up trash or having a community meetup.” 

He and his peers have been calling, texting and writing handwritten letters to lawmakers in an effort to lobby for these bills.

Two years ago, the class that Garza is now in had success with moving forward a bill designating the breakfast taco the official state breakfast food of Texas, but that bill did not become law last session. This year, the St. Edward’s team of students feels that these civics bills have a greater likelihood of passing and a greater public impact. 

St. Edward’s student Meghan Duncan explained that at her high school in Leander, her civics lessons were less than ideal and didn’t teach her the “nitty gritty” of how to contact lawmakers or how to make a difference in her own community. 

“It was a lot of just, ‘Here’s a worksheet on how a bill becomes a law. We’re going to watch a video about how a bill becomes a law, and we’re going to take a test on it,’ and that was pretty much it,” she recalled. 

Now a political science student in the legislative class at St. Edward’s, Duncan is hoping to give other high school students in Texas more tools to be informed participants in their communities. 

“I was really excited to hear that this bill was about civics education because that’s like what we’re doing as part of this class, we’re getting this learning through this project through this whole semester, and we’re advocating for middle school and high school students to get the same kind of education we’re getting,” Duncan said. 

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