Capitol Perspectives: Legislative targeting of education

February 4, 2022 7:00 am

More than 90 bills have been filed in the Missouri legislature this year that would impose requirements or restrictions on public schools (Getty Images).

This year’s session of Missouri’s legislature has been flooded with measures to control what local public schools must do or cannot do.

It represents an erosion of the reverence I regularly heard from lawmakers of both parties about the near sanctity of local control over education by locally elected school district board members.

Beyond that, Missouri’s Constitution specifically provides that “supervision of instruction in the public schools shall be vested in a state board of education.”

But this year, more than 90 bills have been filed that would impose requirements or restrictions on public schools.

Granted, many of these bills do not directly involve the constitutionally protected issue of “instruction.”

Some of these non-instruction issues are relatively benign covering health, safety issues, school buses, school drinking water, student health care and parental rights for information.

Other non-instructional bills would prohibit discrimination based on hair style including braids, providing information about vaping products and requiring a suicide hot-line phone number on the back of a student ID.

But there are more controversial bills, including bans on public school mask mandates and sexual diversity counseling.

One could argue that some of these supposedly non-instruction issues could have an impact on “instruction,” such as student counseling and protecting the health of students and teachers in the classroom.

Beyond that, almost half of these public school requirements specifically involve what teachers must or cannot instruct.

One of the more frequent school proposals are Republican bills to ban public schools teaching controversial subjects described as “critical race theory.”

These bills would prohibit teaching about race-guilt or that someone inherently is racist because of the person’s race.

Some of these bills specifically would ban teaching about or providing students with materials from the New York Times “The 1619 Project,” which chronicles the consequences of slavery on U.S. history.

One bill even would ban requiring a teacher to discuss in class a controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.

I confess a personal bias about that issue. My high school classroom discussions about public policy issues helped empower me in my career as a journalist.

On the other side are bills that would require specific subjects to be taught in public schools.

These mandatory subjects include Native-American history, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the criminal justice system, police interaction, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights era, computer science, race incidents in Missouri and even cursive writing.

Some bills require the Education Department to develop curricula on various subjects for use in public schools, including one on “responsible use of social media” that public schools would be required to teach.

Are not these legislative efforts messing with public school curricula essentially trying to interfere with the state Board of Education’s constitutional supervisory authority over “instruction?”

As an alternative, why not simply propose these subjects to the state Board of Education rather than involving the highly partisan legislative process?

The board is composed of both Republicans and Democrats who must be confirmed by the Missouri Senate.

The board’s current president was the former top leader of the Missouri Senate — former Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields. He enjoyed deep respect from both Senate Republicans and Democrats.

I suspect the framers of Missouri’s Constitution limited supervision of instruction to the board because of concerns about the obvious danger from elected politicians dictating curricula.

The threat is that subjects required or prohibited from instruction could reflect popular political objectives or ideological pressures rather than a balanced presentation of issues and our country’s history as well as the actual educational needs of students.

In an election year, there is an obvious incentive to push politically divisive education issues.

Indeed, there are substantially more bills dealing with school curricula this year than were filed in the 2021 non-election year legislative session.

And there are weeks left before the state constitutional restriction on legislators filing bills.

But the broader question is why state legislators do not respect the decisions of their locally elected school boards and the bipartisan state Board of Education.

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.