Kansas, Missouri lawmakers slam school boards as curricula fights head to statehouses

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For months, parents across the country have packed local school board meetings, many of them to condemn library book choices, history curricula, diversity training and pandemic precautions.

COVID-19 gave them a rare front row seat to their children’s educations when classes went online. Supported in part by a network of conservative activists and think tanks, parents have demanded answers from school districts about the teaching of what they claim to be critical race theory, about pornography in library books and whether these or other influences have hurt academic performance.

The movement demonstrated its power in the November elections as conservatives gained seats on school boards across Kansas. Educational issues and parental rights also helped to drive Republican Glenn Youngkin to victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election.

Now parents have taken their issues to the Kansas statehouse.

“How are these ideas getting into the classroom? I submit the better question of how could they not be,” Denise Roberts, a parent in the Shawnee Mission School District said at a Wednesday hearing.

Roberts and other parents are getting a friendly reception. This week in both Kansas and Missouri lawmakers took confrontational stances toward school boards and state education officials, signaling their intent to pick up the culture war fights that roiled school districts this fall.

It will mean legislative attempts to assert for more state influence over teaching decisions.

In Missouri, lawmakers already have filed bills for next year’s session to ban teaching of critical race theory. The college and law school-level concept, which examines the role of institutions in perpetuating racism, has become a catch-all phrase for objections to a range of materials touching on race and diversity. Kansas lawmakers have signaled plans to do the same.

The result could challenge a long-established division of responsibility, one in which state boards of education set academic standards and locally-elected school boards decide specific curricula to reach those standards.

Republican lawmakers made clear this week they were dissatisfied with that system.

“Ultimately when school boards don’t listen to parents, when the state board of education doesn’t listen to concerns, in the end parents and folks will come to the Legislature and say fix it,” said Kansas Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, on Wednesday.

‘Shining a light’

Kansas lawmakers heard two days of testimony from a handpicked group of citizens, state board of education members and school professionals on the factors that drive student achievement.

Lawmakers considered the impacts of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, mask usage, and soft skills. They heard testimony from one parent seeking to ban books from school libraries.

Legislators also questioned whether the State Board of Education held districts to high enough academic standards. And they debated whether local school boards were adequately considering student achievement in the budget process.

“We’re shining a light on concerns that parents have. They don’t have the ability to speak for themselves, they oftentimes have three minutes to speak in a meeting at a school board, or in some cases through the pandemic they weren’t allowed to sign up,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican.

At least three Kansas lawmakers have announced plans to introduce bills that would ban what they claim to be critical race theory from Kansas classrooms. Williams, who chairs the House K-12 Budget Committee, said she’s open to considering such bans as long as they address the issues brought by parents this week.

Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City Democrat who also sits on the KCK School Board, said parents have legitimate concerns that have been mislabeled as critical race theory. She called the committee’s deliberations a sign of what’s to come.

“This signals that it will not be a balanced deliberation, there will be more slinging mud,” Winn said. “They’re weaponizing theory but still I don’t see anyone wanting to have a serious discussion about how do we teach race.”

‘Why we have local control’

Though the state board and lawmakers agreed Wednesday to work together on reading goals for 3rd graders, the upcoming session is likely escalate tensions between the two governing bodies. The board faced blowback when it said this summer that critical race theory was not taught in Kansas and they’ve long asked lawmakers to stay out of curriculum.

Ann Mah, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, repeated those sentiments Wednesday and critiqued the indiscriminate and inaccurate use of the term.

“Learning about racism is not critical race theory and I think our students are smart enough to be able to handle these tough topics,” Mah said. “That’s why we have local control and those kinds of disputes should be handled there.”

Parents and lawmakers insisted that the choice of words to define their concerns was inconsequential.

“It’s not a matter of naming it CRT, or DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) , or SEL (social emotional learning), it’s the content that is actually being included,” Williams said. “If you’re going to violate first amendment rights, 14th amendment rights, civil rights laws of 1964 by focusing on race and segregating based on race then it is not lawful.”

Unresponsive boards?

In Missouri, the issues are largely the same. Lawmakers held a three-hour hearing of the Joint Committee on Education on Tuesday, questioning the state’s history and social studies standards and accusing school boards of being unresponsive to parental concerns.

It followed two hearings over the summer during which lawmakers insisted that critical race theory is is taught, despite the an education department survey that found otherwise. The single exception was Kansas City Public Schools, which listed the African-Centered College Preparatory Academy and a summer school curriculum based on The 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine journalism project arguing that slavery and racism played a central role in American history.

On Tuesday, lawmakers rarely mentioned critical race theory by name. But conservatives’ desire to ban those materials, and other curricula they’ve called inappropriate, underscored the discussion.

Speakers included Matthew Spalding, director of former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which released a report in response to the 1619 Project on “restoring patriotic education” and “viewing our history clearly and wholly, with reverence and love.”

One Republican, Rep. Chuck Basye of Rocheport, said he will file legislation to allow private citizens to force certain topics onto school board agendas.

Basye clashed with the Columbia Public Schools earlier this year, calling on its superintendent to resign, over an optional high school assignment to view the video for Childish Gambino’s song “This is America,” widely regarded as a commentary on gun violence and race. Basye called it inappropriate and said he and parents who raised concerns weren’t heard by the district.

Legislation to ban teaching of critical race theory and The 1619 Project were among the first bills pre-filed Wednesday for the 2022 session.

Lawmakers also may coalesce around a “parents’ bill of rights” promoted by Attorney General Eric Schmitt. The proposal would require schools to allow parents easy access to curricula, teacher training materials and a range of other already publicly available information, including vaccine exemptions and a school choice program lawmakers passed this year.

It would allow Schmitt’s office to sue districts over violations.

Schmitt, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate, has sued the Springfield school district over a Sunshine Law request he filed seeking information about the district’s race-related teachings and teacher training materials.

Democrats have said local school districts have nothing to hide. After Schmitt’s announcement, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, filed a similar version of the “parental bill of rights” legislation on Wednesday. The primary difference is to allow local prosecutors the power to sue, instead of Schmitt.

Education department officials on Tuesday spoke up for the state’s local-control educational model.

“Having government censor what is or what is not taught can be a slippery slope, and is one that this body traditionally has worked to avoid,” said Tracy Hinds, deputy commissioner for learning services in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Missouri has valued local control and professional educator input.”

But lawmakers remained frustrated. Committee co-chair Rep. Doug Richey called school boards “unengaged.” Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican, urged the Missouri School Boards Association to push members to be more responsive to parents.

“Can we go back and tell our boards, you’ve got to put this on [the agenda]?” said MSBA associate executive director for advocacy, Mike Reid. “If they’re not responding to people they’re held accountable by their voters in their district.”

“That’s harder than that simple little statement,” O’Laughlin said. “You sometimes get up against a stone wall ... and you kind of just get brushed off, and then it ends up here, which then starts that big whirlwind of turmoil that we’ll be in for the next five and a half months.”

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