March 17, 2008
The Bible class conundrum

This story is a good illustration of why bills like HB1287 should be left to languish in committee rather than get brought to the floor for passage.

Fiercely debated legislation last year to put a Bible course in public schools has landed in the hands of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on what it means.

And that's hardly a surprise, since state lawmakers couldn't agree on what the wording meant last May when they passed HB 1287, the so-called "Bible bill."

Just about everyone agrees a Bible course cannot be used to endorse, promote or disparage any faith and that the purpose of the class is to help students understand the Bible as literature.

But Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has called on Abbott to referee one of the bill's most contentious points: Are public high schools required to offer a Bible course if at least 15 students request it?

The bill's author, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who carried the legislation in the Senate, emphatically contend it was intended to obligate school districts to offer the course in high schools if the 15-student threshold is met.

"If a certain number of students request it, yes, they must do it. I don't think if a group gets together and says, 'Yes, we want to do this,' the school system should have to say, 'No, you can't,' " Estes said.

Chisum also referred to a separate State Board of Education rule requiring school districts to offer courses if requested by 10 students.

But Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, an acknowledged expert on public education issues, said the mandatory provisions of the bill were removed before it passed.

"It's totally permissive," Hochberg said. "There is no course requirement. Under the rules of legislative construction, I don't know any other way to read it."

Here's the text of the bill, as enrolled. Feel free to make your own judgment.

House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, circulated a memo last May clarifying several amendments to the bill, including one respecting local control "by giving school boards the right to decide" whether to offer the Bible course.

"What about 'local control' is confusing here?" said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which fought to keep the bill from being mandatory. "Chairman Eissler's memo makes it clear that the committee's amended bill left the decision to local schools to make.

"With so many priorities competing for education dollars, that would seem to make a lot of sense to most taxpayers," she continued.

That would seem pretty straightforward to me, but perhaps the people who really pushed this bill just aren't happy with that explanation. And so we'll wait six months for the Attorney General to tell us what he thinks. In the meantime, there's another issue to ponder:

Another uncertainty hovering over the Bible bill is the absence of funding for the required teacher training, estimated by the Texas Education Agency to cost $250,000 the first year, $500,000 the second year and $50,000 annually after that.

"Due to that lack of funding ... the agency is not developing that training," Scott said in his letter to Abbott.

Proper training for a Bible course taught in public schools is imperative, Hochberg said.

"Teaching biblical history separately from preaching the Bible requires thought and planning and knowledge, particularly in an environment where you are attempting to teach to people with very different views on religion," Hochberg said.

The notion that lawmakers did not fund the training requirement baffles Chisum, who is not only the bill's author but also chairs the House Appropriations Committee that writes the state budget.

"We may not have had it specifically named in there for that specific (purpose) because there's no way we'd know how many people were going to need training," Chisum said.

Warren Chisum of all people knows fully well that unless funding is specifically designated for a purpose, it often doesn't get used for that purpose. And given the attitude the Lege has shown towards education funding lately, is it any surprise that the TEA isn't eager to divert a quarter million bucks to this speciality training if it can avoid it? What a mess. Vince has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 17, 2008 to That's our Lege

lol thats some bad drafting.

The ambiguity seems to come in between section a and h

(a) A school district may offer to students in grade nine or above:
(1) an elective course on the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and its impact and an elective course on the New Testament and its impact; or
(2) an elective course that combines the courses described by Subdivision (1).


(h) If, for a particular semester, fewer than 15 students at a school district campus register to enroll in a course required by this section, the district is not required to offer the course at that campus for that semester.

(a)says they "may" offer it (h) discusses the course "required" by the section.

Hochberg is probably right that the madatory provision was removed then the ambiguity should be resolved in favor of "may"

Posted by: Antinome on March 17, 2008 6:34 PM

Good LORD, this is ridiculous (all puns intended). How many schools will there be where 15 kids actually demand a secular history of the Bible course? It's not like Sunday School.

I know the Christian right is doing everything it can to get Jesus in the schools, but this costs tax money to accomplish. I imagine a right wing conservative's head exploding when trying to decide what to do. :)

Posted by: Jeff on March 17, 2008 6:56 PM

What a stupid bill. Not only is it poorly written, but it fails the WTF test. You know that this bill is an ACLU lawsuit waiting to happen, one that the ACLU would rightfully win. What no allowance for Muslim students? What about Hindus?

And hey which Old Testement are we going to use, the Catholic or the Protestent (Tobit or not Tobit, that is the question)?

Oh, yeah and what about that issue of local control? Perhaps when election time rolls around Rep Chisum and Rep Estes should run for the local school board instead of wasting time on crappy bills like this.

Posted by: Patrick on March 18, 2008 8:51 AM

This could seriously backfire on the fundies. If the course is really "teaching the Bible as literature," that means they can teach its history, how the various books were chosen, where they originated, etc. Knowing how the Bible evolved, if you will, to its current form(s) certainly takes the wind out of the dictation-from-god sail.

Posted by: CrispyShot on March 18, 2008 9:41 AM