Opponents of ‘critical race theory’ urge Missouri lawmakers to take action

At a lawmaker’s request, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is surveying schools on whether critical race theory and the 1619 Project is taught in districts

By: - July 19, 2021 7:09 pm
Mary Byrne

Mary Byrne, a co-founding member of Missouri Coalition Against Common Core, testifies during a Joint Committee on Education hearing on critical race theory on July 19, 2021. (photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

A handful of parents pleaded with state lawmakers Monday to take action on critical race theory in schools — an academic concept that the state’s commissioner of education said the vast majority of Missouri’s K-12 schools don’t teach.

Over the course of nearly three hours Monday, lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Education heard from parents, a few educators and the state department of education on the topic that has become a flashpoint nationwide.

“In my opinion, the schools are engaging in psychological abuse of our children funded by taxpayers with countless thousands of children held captive by a system that does not work for them,” said Marline Kovacs, a mother of two daughters who attend the Clayton school district in St. Louis County.

But lawmakers largely heard testimony from witnesses in opposition to the academic concept — a point of tension that grew increasingly visible over the course of the hearing as frustrated attendees who were not permitted to testify interjected at times. 

Only invited testimony was taken in-person Monday.

“Zero,” one woman in the audience said as state Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, insisted there had been integrity in inviting residents to testify. “None.”

Experts have said that the academic concept of critical race theory, which is intended to acknowledge how racial disparities are embedded in U.S history and society, is being misconstrued by conservative lawmakers who have sought to ban it.

The issue has trickled down and dominated local school board meetings in Missouri in recent months and often enters the debate on how districts teach diversity in the classroom. The Show-Me Institute, a conservative think tank, has filed a series of open records requests with districts across the state to determine if critical race theory is taught within them.

It’s a similar request that state Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, recently made to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for the department, said Eslinger requested the department gather data on whether districts are teaching the concepts of critical race theory or the 1619 Project by The New York Times, which detailed the United States’ legacy of slavery. A survey was sent to districts last week and will close on Friday, McGowin said.

However, the extent to which critical race theory and its related concepts are being taught in Missouri schools depends on who’s asked.

“To the best of my knowledge, the vast majority of our K-12 public schools are not teaching critical race theory,” a statement read on behalf of Margie Vandeven, the commissioner of education, said.

It was a point Gov. Mike Parson echoed hours after the hearing had ended Monday, writing on Twitter that, “Missouri schools are teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion to help prepare our students for life and for the workforce by allowing them to better understand and respect each other’s differences. However, we do NOT need the extreme teachings of CRT in order to accomplish that goal.”

“I believe in local control and our state has a long history of valuing local control, and that is why local schools districts have statutory authority over curriculum,” Parson wrote, noting schools receive direct input from parents and teachers.

Rep. Doug Richey and Cindy O'Laughlin
Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, and Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, during a Joint Committee on Education hearing on critical race theory on Monday, July 19, 2021. (photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

Meanwhile, Richey, vice chair of the committee who held a listening session last week for parents in his district concerned about the issue, questioned whether school districts are being “completely oblivious” and unable to discern its presence or engaging in “deception” when it comes to whether schools are aware such curriculum is being taught in schools.

Lawmakers referenced various school districts working with consultants to develop curriculum, including LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri’s College of Education, who has worked with schools in the St. Louis area.

Other districts, like Columbia Public Schools, recently voted to approve an agreement with the Pulitzer Center for a grant that will help “to support exploration of key questions of racial justice and other pressing issues” with The 1619 Project as a resource, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Richey questioned if the purpose of schools is to affect “cultural transformation” of the minds of the next generation versus producing well-educated students.

Michael Harris, chief of governmental relations for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the ultimate goal of the department is that students are prepared to be successful in life. The line between that and cultural transformation can be blurry “especially when our students are coming in the classroom asking those questions,” Harris said.

What fell under the scope of critical race theory outlined during Monday’s hearing ranged from parents decrying the types of books taught in the classroom, like “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, to others incensed that schools did not provide an opt-out opportunity for activities centered on aspects of one’s identity, like gender or race.

“I would call it ‘revolution lite,’” Katie Rash, a St. Peters mom and volunteer grassroots coordinator for the Missouri chapter of No Left Turn in Education, said of various teachings.

Rachl Aguirre, an english teacher at an alternative school in suburban Kansas City, said no matter the various terms used for curriculum, she feels it has hijacked schools and pits kids against each other. Aguirre declined to name her district for fear of her personal information being published.

“My job is to give them the academics that they need. That is what I’m hired for, and that’s all I’m hired for. It is not my job to tell parents how to raise their children, whether I agree with them or not,” Aguirre said, later adding: “I’m not an oppressor, because my husband’s Hispanic.”

But Heather Fleming, the founder and director of In Purpose Education Services and founder of Missouri Equity Education Partnership, said the term critical race theory was being incorrectly used as an umbrella term to address anything to do with culturally responsive teaching.

“The only thing I really heard was that this was more about discomfort than it was damage,” Fleming said, later adding: “And what they were willing to do was to damage my children in order to not experience discomfort. Well, my children are also entitled to see themselves represented in the curriculum.”

Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, speaks during a House Democrats press conference.
Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, speaks during a House Democrats press conference on July 19, 2021, following a Joint Committee on Education hearing on critical race theory. (photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

Fleming spoke alongside Democratic lawmakers during a press conference after Monday’s hearing. Fleming was among those who attended the hearing but wasn’t permitted to testify.

Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican and chair of the committee, said she felt it was important to hear from people “who have tried to go through the official cycle of authority within their districts and have basically been turned away.” 

King, the MU professor, was invited but declined to attend, she said. While some Democratic lawmakers said they were given an opportunity to invite witnesses to testify, they said it wasn’t until Friday afternoon which left them insufficient time to invite witnesses over the weekend, they said.

“It is the height of irony that a hearing to consider censoring curriculum would censor those who are allowed to speak,” said Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City.

Nimrod Chapel, the president of the Missouri NAACP, said after Monday’s hearing he was saddened by the fact that no witnesses who testified were Black in a discussion that was centered on identifying inequities.

“And then at the same time, excluding the very people who are saying that we’ve been treated inequitably. It’s ridiculous,” Chapel said, later adding: “They wanted to hear from their friends who were going to support their political talking points…”

Monday’s hearing was the latest of lawmakers’ growing list of efforts to regulate critical race theory.

In late May, after legislative attempts failed to gain traction, O’Laughlin and House Education Committee Chair Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, urged Parson to call a special session devoted to the topic.

“These curriculum changes are divisive and unnecessary,” the lawmakers’ wrote of schools incorporating teachings on the issue.

Legislation that would have barred school districts from teaching curriculum on critical race theory or the 1619 Project by The New York Times failed to pass this session.

Similar legislation was filed in statehouses across the country. At least five states — Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee — signed bills into law, according to a nationwide analysis by NBC News.

Scott Nixon, a Webster Groves father, said he would like to see lawmakers ban the teaching of critical race theory and its concepts. And if that isn’t possible, he requested lawmakers pass a bill restating the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed all U.S. citizens “equal protection of the laws,” and the Civil Rights Act and give “penalties to root it out at the district level.”

“I’ll take that,” Nixon said.

McGowin said that under current state law, DESE can neither mandate nor censor any type of curriculum.

“Those are local decisions,” McGowin said.

Vandeven’s statement also noted that in 2014 lawmakers passed legislation that stipulated that the state board of education shall convene workgroups of education professionals — with a majority of members appointed by the legislature — each time learning standards are modified or developed.

O’Laughlin said Monday’s hearing will likely not be the last.

“All of our kids should be taught with respect and I do believe that some of our educational institutions have stepped into an area that is inappropriate,” she said. “Hopefully we can dial that back some and work together to find common ground. Because we need to find common ground.”

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.