Missouri polling school districts on critical race theory as legislature holds hearing
JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri is surveying school districts around the state on whether they teach critical race theory, state education officials said Monday, as a legislative committee held a contentious initial hearing on the topic.
Michael Harris, chief of governmental relations for the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the committee that the department asked districts around the state whether their curriculum includes the academic concept or The 1619 Project. A department spokesperson said Monday that the department sent superintendents the survey July 12, and it closes Friday.
That disclosure came during a tense, nearly three-hour hearing at the Capitol in which lawmakers from both chambers heard testimony exclusively from opponents of critical race theory, almost all of whom were invited by the committee's chair, Shelbina Republican Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin. Public spoken testimony was not allowed.
The survey was requested by Sen. Karla Eslinger, a Republican from Wasola.
Columbia Public Schools received and responded to the state's survey, spokesperson Michelle Baumstark confirmed Tuesday. It contained two yes/no questions — one regarding critical race theory and one on The 1619 Project. The district answered "no" to both questions, Baumstark said.
"We do not have CRT or 1619 curriculum or lessons in Columbia Public Schools," Baumstark wrote in an email. "... The district does have a small group of educators who are looking at the primary source materials for 1619, but nothing has been adopted or implemented in Columbia Public Schools. Changes to curriculum must go through a thorough evaluation and approval process with final approval done by the Board of Education. That is not being considered or presented to the Board at time."
A standard is the knowledge and skills students must learn, while a curriculum is a standards-based sequence of planned courses, Baumstark said.
Although the school board last week approved an agreement with the Pulitzer Center for teachers to explore aspects of The 1619 Project in courses, Baumstark said that can't be considered teaching it.
From the agreement: "Network teams will develop standards-aligned units that engage their students in The 1619 Project, and other journalism and historical sources, to strengthen connections to existing curricula, practice media literacy skills, and build empathy."
"The agreement says the teachers will review the primary source materials and then develop some example lessons based on what they have learned from the materials," Baumstark wrote. "The courses being used for this grant are two senior level elective courses on African-American History/Literature. The agreement does not say the district then has to implement curriculum."
Only testimony against CRT allowed
The Monday hearing focused primarily on the academic concept known as critical race theory, which argues that racism and inequity are baked into institutions and legal systems. It first emerged in the late 1970s from a legal framework, but has recently been the subject of anger and alarm as individuals and groups, many of whom are conservative, argue that it is entering schools and negatively impacting students. The meeting also aimed to address schools' use of The 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine analysis of slavery's impact on U.S. history that has drawn the ire of critical race theory opponents in the two years since its publication.
All those who testified to the committee were opponents of CRT, other than Harris, who did not take a stance as he represented the education department. Among their most vocal concerns was the presence of "rogue teachers," who opponents claimed sought to quietly insert tenets of CRT into all aspects of K-12 education. Parents who spoke also expressed concern that CRT's presence would result in, among other things, students becoming activists, anti-American or anti-capitalist.
Many of the committee's Republicans were sympathetic to the parents and teachers who spoke and indicated a desire to ban or restrict the teaching of critical race theory in schools, although the "vast majority" of the state's K-12 schools do not include it, Harris said.
Gov. Mike Parson, hours after the hearing ended, said on Twitter that he did not support critical race theory and that schools in Missouri did not teach it.
"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," Parson wrote. "However, we do NOT need the extreme teachings of CRT in order to accomplish that goal."
Democrats and advocates blasted the hearing in a press conference afterwards, calling many of the claims Republicans leveled misleading and false. Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, a Kansas City Democrat and chair of the Missouri Black Legislative Caucus, called the exercise an attempt at "state-sponsored censorship," and said that the lack of diverse voices allowed to testify indicated a narrow and political agenda.
"Their mindless anger is meant to chill educators from even broaching the subject of race in our nation, which has been an undeniable part of our country since before its founding," Bland Manlove said. "They have made people fear the idea that Black scholarship might, let me repeat, might, be a part of the curriculum in this nation's schools."
Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Kansas City Democrat and the Democratic caucus chair, paused testimony at one point in the meeting to ask a parent how they had been invited, to which they responded that O'Laughlin, the committee chair, had invited them. O'Laughlin said many of the parents invited to testify had been attending meetings she had been to, and said it was "important to hear from people who have tried to go through the official cycle of authority within districts and been turned away."
Burnett said she was a "bit troubled" by the limited list of those invited to testify; LaGarrett King, a University of Missouri professor, was the only proponent invited. King declined to appear Monday.
"I just am concerned that we are having a hearing where only invited guests are allowed to testify. By whose invitation? That concerns me. It should be open to the public in general," Burnett said to O'Laughlin. "I did ask for that information (for those wanting to testify) from your office and received no response."
National debate arrives in Missouri
The meeting held in a packed House hearing room in the basement of the Capitol was, in many ways, a microcosm of the topic's restless national debate. Parents recalled their experiences with school districts primarily in suburban St. Louis and Kansas City, expressing concern that CRT, regardless of the form it takes, could disrupt teaching and learning.
Testimony was frequently punctuated by comments of disagreement from the audience, and those who agreed with testimony would applaud when it finished. A number of people representing the MO Equity Education Partnership, a grassroots group opposing lawmakers' efforts, stood outside the hearing room, which had limited space.
Mary Byrne, a former Republican Congressional candidate and opponent of critical race theory, provided the hearing's first testimony. Her comments echoed much of what she has said to Springfield Public Schools' board in recent months, including linking CRT to Marxism and claiming that under the theory, "whites are expected to denounce white thought."
The meeting comes as school boards around the state have seen their meeting rooms flooded by testimony about the concept, from Byrne and countless others. Twice in two months, protesters opposing CRT stood outside Springfield Public's headquarters. The debate has also come to central Missouri, where Columbia and Jefferson City boards have begun to hear comments from the public and weigh the role of the concept in curriculum. Several other states — including Arkansas, Idaho and Florida — have moved to restrict or ban the theory from schools, despite it having very little active presence in the K-12 sphere.
Harris, speaking on behalf of Missouri's education department, referenced Missouri's status as a local control state where districts could craft their own curriculum and policy so long as it met state and federal standards. Although the department did not take a stance on the teaching of CRT, a statement on behalf of department commissioner Margie Vandeven warned the legislature of the implications if they legislated on the topic.
"Having government censor what is or isn't taught is a slippery slope and one this body has traditionally worked to avoid," Vandeven said. "Missouri has traditionally valued local control and professional educator input."
Any legislation that restricted or banned critical race theory could have an impact on how teachers approach certain broader topics, Harris said, responding to Burnett's concern that it could violate the state's education standards.
"Any sort of legislation that's going to ban is going to put teachers in a position where they're uncomfortable discussing certain things and would say, 'Hey, I'm going to skip over this, because if I say the wrong thing, I'll get in trouble with a parent,'" Harris said.
Opponents of critical race theory argued in testimony Monday that the definition and role of critical race theory in education could often be nebulous — and though its direct tenets may not be spotted, they could influence other facets of the classroom, including subjects unrelated to history and social studies.
"What we're dealing with is not merely the academic discipline, we're talking about something that really is ... a lens through which we see reality around us," said Rep. Doug Richey, a Republican from Excelsior Springs and the committee's vice chair. "That lens is going to be difficult to discern when it comes to parents talking to teachers, talking to school board members."
Heather Fleming, an equity educator and founder and director of In Purpose Educational Services, said in a press conference alongside Democrats that CRT was being used to intentionally conflate the role of race and equity in education.
The hearing, Fleming and several Democrats argued, was one held in bad faith — focused on discomfort with changing ideals and discrediting the state's public school system. Fleming also referenced the state's poor rankings on key education metrics, including public education funding and average starting salary for teachers.
"This was more about discomfort than it was damage," Fleming said. "What they are willing to do is damage my children in order to not experience discomfort. Well, my children are also entitled to see themselves represented in curriculum."
Monday was not the last time Missouri's statehouse will see or hear about critical race theory; O'Laughlin said she planned to hold several more committee meetings on the topic in the coming months.