A new state law instructs public school districts and charter networks to teach about tolerance, genocide and the Holocaust at every grade level starting this year, through participation in an annual “Holocaust Remembrance Week.”
Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1828 on Tuesday, mandating “that schools shall include age appropriate instruction determined by the districts” for grades K-12.
Texas now is one of a handful of states with such a law, said commission member Jonathan Gurwitz, calling it “a very positive step forward” while noting it contains no formal way to convince the state’s more than 1,000 independent school districts and 700 charter schools to participate.
“You can’t mandate something that has no funding. … It’s going to be difficult to get every school district to comply,” Gurwitz said. “Some are going to have to come a long way. It’s going to have to be a progression.”
Since it carries no funding or enforcement mechanism, responsibility for meaningful participation likely will fall on individual superintendents or teachers — but Lisa Barry, a teacher at Alamo Heights Junior High School who helped push for passage of Senate Bill 1828, already knows what’s possible.
She has been passionate about teaching the Holocaust for 16 years at three school districts. Barry’s fifth-grade reading students at Navarro Independent School District in rural Guadalupe County drew fame for setting a goal in 2007 to collect 6 million pennies to represent the 6 million who lost their lives in the Nazi genocide.
The students eventually accomplished about one-third of it, raising more than $20,000 for charity. To this day, they’ll drop off pennies at her classroom or home to thank her for the lesson, Barry said.
The new law, which was sponsored by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, gives the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission the job of approving the educational material school districts create for the week. Its website offers guidelines for the lessons and resources for teaching the topic.
The bill states the governor will set a date for the remembrance week. Abbott’s office has not yet announced the date but the bill’s backers think it might fall either in January or April because of other Holocaust remembrance events.
“I knew if we tried to attach money to the bill it would probably hurt it,” Menéndez said at a panel discussion this week sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women and the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio.
Joining Barry at the conference were three other women who lobbied hard for the bill and were celebrating its signing: Sharon Greenwald, Varda Ratner and Ginny Wind, all daughters of Holocaust survivors and the legislation’s original drafters.
Greenwald’s parents, David and Golda Sharff, came to San Antonio in 1949 after both survived Nazi labor camps. Ratner’s parents, Nathan and Ilona Haendel, spent years in hiding, while Wind’s mother and grandmother, Ann Levit and Bella Yedwab, survived the Kaiserwald concentration camp and a death march to the Baltic Sea.
The women have had a long, close friendship, Ratner said, and their work on the bill led them to call themselves “the four ladies in a car.”
The work isn’t done, they said.
“We’re now brainstorming a task force to work alongside the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission in implementing the bill and aiding school districts with educational workshops,” Greenwald said.
“The bill is only the first step,” Barry said. “We’ll continue pressing for this education.”