Kansas City only Missouri school district reporting it teaches ‘critical race theory’

Two other districts told the state that they utilize the 1619 Project in their curriculum

By: - July 27, 2021 7:00 am
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 survey of over 400 Missouri school districts found only Kansas City Public Schools reported that it uses a curriculum that both teaches lessons about critical race theory and includes the 1619 Project.

Two other districts reported that they utilize the 1619 Project in their curriculum.

The results of the survey, administered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), come a week after a handful of parents and teachers opposed to critical race theory decried its teaching in schools before a committee of lawmakers — even as the state’s commissioner of education said the academic concept is largely not taught throughout K-12 public schools in Missouri.

The survey was requested by state Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday about the survey’s findings.

Over the course of two weeks from July 12-23, DESE asked school districts two questions: whether their board-approved curriculum includes lesson about critical race theory and whether it includes the 1619 Project by The New York Times, which detailed the United States’ legacy of slavery.

In total, 425 responses were received, with nearly all schools answering “no.”

Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for DESE, said Tuesday the department had no further comment on the survey’s findings and stressed it was conducted not for the agency’s purposes, “but rather to help gather baseline data for legislators inquiring” about critical race theory in schools.

Heather Fleming, the founder and director of In Purpose Education Services and founder of Missouri Equity Education Partnership, said the survey results counter the narrative of widespread indoctrination and exemplify that lawmakers’ and opponents’ focus on the issue is a “red herring.” 

However, she felt that it would ultimately be used by lawmakers to benefit their political agendas.

“What these people are saying is they don’t even want to look at where there’s a cog missing in our system,” Fleming said. “They don’t even want to examine our systems critically.”

Critical Race Theory & The 1619 Project in Missouri LEAs (1)

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.

Katie Rash, a St. Peters mom and volunteer grassroots coordinator for the Missouri chapter of No Left Turn in Education, said she felt the survey was not a reliable method to gauge the extent to which schools teach the concept because it asked districts to self-report.

Rash, who spoke out against critical race theory at a hearing lawmakers held last week, said she felt the department should have asked more specific questions, like whether specific concepts, terms or literature are taught.

“I think it’s different understandings,” Rash said of how people define critical race theory. “And I think in some cases, it’s outright deception.”

It’s a point Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican and chair of the Joint Committee on Education, echoed, saying that the topic is currently so controversial she thinks “most schools are going to deny they have anything to do with it,” but would still implement its tenets in other ways.

“I’m not sure that it’s a real in-depth look,” O’Laughlin said in an interview with The Independent. “I have about a half-a-foot tall stack of evidence of these kinds of things going on in the schools, taken from school websites. So I guess I’m able to figure out things that DESE can’t figure out.”

The few districts that did answer yes to either question were in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas.

The Hazelwood School District in Florissant said it did not teach lessons about critical race theory, but that the 1619 Project is used in three classes.

In a 4th grade and 8th grade social studies class the series is a resource to help teach about the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, with students given a reading of two paragraphs in the 8th grade class.

In a 9th grade U.S. history course it’s mentioned in a suggested learning activity where former President Donald Trump discusses it and the 1776 Project, the district wrote.

In response to the 1619 Project, Trump formed a “1776 Commission,” that issued a report that the Trump administration described as “a dispositive rebuttal of reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.” A separate “1776 Project” curriculum was also developed by civil rights activist Robert Woodson as a counter to the 1619 Project.

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Kansas City Public Schools, which was the only district to answer yes to both questions, said the district offers an African-Centered College Preparatory Academy, a magnet school for elementary and secondary students. The school board also recently approved a $5,000 1619 Education Project grant that aimed to help two teachers implement the project’s lesson plans in summer school.

Columbia Public Schools, whose board also recently voted to approve a grant under the same program, answered no for both survey questions.

The School District of University City said the 1619 Project has been used by a teacher during a unit of study but that it had not been approved by the school board.

City Garden Montessori in St. Louis marked no to both questions and said it does not use the term critical race theory.

“However, our mission and our curriculum do incorporate anti-bias, antiracism. We discuss systemic racism in our curriculum,” the district wrote, adding that the 1619 Project was also shared with teachers as a resource.

Glenwood R-8 School District in West Plains didn’t teach either resource, but made their feelings about the topic known.

“We believe Critical Race Theory is erroneous,” the district wrote. Then added about the 1619 Project: “We don’t consider it factual either.”

The debate over critical race theory has 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.

During a Joint Committee on Education hearing last week, opponents called it “psychological abuse of our children funded by taxpayers.” Lawmakers also drew criticism after no witnesses who testified to the committee were Black.

Fleming, who is Black, said she hopes to get an opportunity to have her voice heard at future hearings and highlight the impact of racism on the mental health of Black children.

O’Laughlin said the committee will meet again in the future and that she would be interested in hearing from people with views on how critical race theory is beneficial. She said she expects lawmakers to revive attempts to ban the teaching of critical race theory again next legislative session come January.

The consensus on what exactly fell under critical race theory varied, with Rash pointing to terms like white privilege as emblematic of its components and saying that she feels it teaches that society will never move past systemic racism.

“And I disagree with that,” Rash said. “I think we can get past it, if we haven’t already.”

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But Fleming said the academic concept is being used as a buzzword to drive hysteria without people understanding what it truly is.

“What our schools are teaching is equity. What schools are teaching is fairness in our society. What our schools are teaching is cultural competency among our students, so that they can be prepared for the future,” Fleming said, later adding:  “And I don’t understand what is so upsetting about that.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covers education, health care and the legislature. 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 most recently covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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