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Missouri Republicans start the year considering how schools teach race and history

 State Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican who chairs the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.
Andrew Koenig
State Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican who chairs the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.

Parental access to school records – and how history and race are taught in Missouri classrooms – will be among the first topics considered by lawmakers this legislative session.

During the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee’s first meeting Wednesday afternoon, committee members will hear testimony on a pair of bills dubbed the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

One of the bills up for debate is sponsored by the panel’s chairman, Republican Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester. Five of the nine committee members have similar bills aimed at codifying curriculum transparency and restricting lessons they deem similar to “critical race theory” – an academic legal framework to help identify the effects of structural racism on policy, which has more recently been incorrectly used to describe K-12 level teaching about race, history and equity.

Both bills on Wednesday’s agenda would establish a statewide transparency portal for all public schools and enshrine rights for parents, like a right to view all of their child’s school records. But unlike Koenig’s bill, the legislation sponsored by Sen. Ben Brown, R-Washington, does not include potential restrictions on “critical race theory.”

Efforts to enact similar legislation fell short last year, in part due to dysfunction in the Senate. The focus on parental rights and race education so early in the 2023 session shows the issue remains a high priority for GOP lawmakers who hold super majorities in both legislative chambers.

“There’s no question we want history taught,” Koenig said in an interview last week. “There’s no question slavery happened. There’s no question that obviously people were sinful in the past, and people are sinful today. But the problem is when you’re assigning that sin to a specific race today, it is clearly out of line.”

Placing restrictions

Brown’s bill would create the Missouri Education Transparency and Accountability Portal, which it describes as “an internet-based tool creating transparency in Missouri’s public education system and providing citizens access to every school district’s curriculum, source materials and professional development materials.”

School districts would have to upload their curriculum and the source material associated with it to the portal for public viewing and provide the names of speakers utilized in professional development as well as the cost associated with those third parties.

His bill’s second section would give parents more access to school material – and the school itself, for one part of his “Parents’ Bill of Rights” would let parents visit their children at school during school hours.

If the bill is passed, parents could also object to lessons or teaching materials that they believe are “inappropriate for whatever reason.”

Brown’s legislation also could prohibit schools from banning the copying of curricula and educational materials, a potentially problematic policy for schools utilizing copyrighted material.

Sen. Ben Brown, R-Washington, listens during the first day of Missouri’s legislative session January 4, 2023. He pre-filed a bill aiming to give parents more access to curriculum and learning materials.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
Sen. Ben Brown, R-Washington, listens during the first day of Missouri’s legislative session January 4, 2023. He pre-filed a bill aiming to give parents more access to curriculum and learning materials.

Koenig’s proposed legislation also looks to add a transparency portal and enshrine parent rights, although his “Parents’ Bill of Rights” does not call for as widespread parental power as visiting during the school day and pulling their child from any lesson.

The bill targets “critical race theory,” too, which Koenig said is compatible with the push for transparency.

“The people that are concerned about (critical race theory) are concerned about having access to what’s being taught. So to me, it was a perfect fit,” he said. “If you had more transparency, it actually might cause less problems because then parents know for sure what is being taught.”

A poll by NPR and Ipsos revealed that 76% of American parents believe that their children’s school “does a good job keeping [them] informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.”

The same poll showed that a majority of parents are satisfied by the school’s teaching regarding race, slavery and gender and sexuality.

Of Republicans, 26% said the school’s teaching of these topics did not align with their values while 11% of Democrats and 17% of Independents said the same. But one out of three parents surveyed did not know whether the curriculum conflicted with their values.

Koenig’s bill begins with a plan for expanding access to curriculum documents and student achievement data and shifts to a restriction on teaching certain viewpoints.

The bill would bar teachers from expressing opinions contrary to Article I, Section 2 of Missouri’s Constitution, which states that everyone is “entitled to equal rights and opportunity under the law.”

His bill gives examples of violating positions, like “individuals should be adversely or advantageously treated on the basis of individual race, ethnicity, color or national origin.”

His bill also bans mandatory training that includes these topics, but states that voluntary training is permissible.

Republican Sen. Rick Brattin of Harrisonville, vice chair of the education committee, has also introduced legislation targeting “critical race theory.”

Brattin’s bill seeks to restrict what it refers to as “divisive concepts.”

Brattin gives 11 examples of divisive lessons, including promoting “any form of race or sex stereotyping, including ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race, sex or an individual because of his or her race or sex.”

His bill also seeks to ban teacher training that includes “racial stereotyping.”

The bill would authorize the Attorney General to investigate school districts’ compliance with the restrictions. If a district is caught in violation, Brattin proposes withholding half of its state aid.

Like other similar bills, it additionally would provide the right for parents to view all curriculum documents.

In schools today

A 2021 Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education survey of over 400 school districts found just one school district that reported it teaches critical race theory and utilizes the 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times which centers African American history and racism in the United States.

Two additional districts said they utilized the 1619 Project.

Koenig said that although “critical race theory” – a concept many denote as a graduate-level study – is not explicitly in the state’s public schools, he believes similar concepts are in K-12 classrooms.

“There’s no question that CRT-type things are being done,” he said.

“Critical race theory,” according to a Columbia News article, is a study of how racism has affected United States society and law. Many frequently label equity education as “critical race theory,” although the two have different features.

There has been “a lot of blowback,” Koenig said, over school districts in his senatorial district teaching what parents believe sounds like “critical race theory.”

The Rockwood School District covers most of his senatorial district and caught national attention when a group of concerned parents united against the district’s lessons on racism.

Community members convened at a parent-led meeting where Koenig and Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, who was recently elected to be Senate majority leader, answered questions from the crowd.

When asked during the meeting to define critical race theory and provide examples, Koenig described an activity he called “basically white shaming.”

O’Laughlin called “critical race theory” “a belief that all whites are inherently racist whether they know it or not.”

Koenig told The Independent he’s heard from constituents concerned with what their children are receiving in public schools. In particular, he pointed to a “matrix of oppression” he alleges is being taught in Rockwood schools.

He pointed to a lesson called the “matrix of oppression.” He had an image of the matrix of oppression that alleged that Rockwood schools were utilizing the diagram, but the Independent could not confirm its validity.

Mary LaPak, chief communications officer for the school district, had not seen the image and said the matrix of oppression is “not a board-approved curriculum document.”

In 2021, Springfield Public Schools held a diversity training day including the matrix of oppression, and former attorney general Eric Schmitt’s office requested all records related to the training. When the records were not sent expeditiously, Schmitt sued the district.

The case remains in litigation. The most recent action on the lawsuit was assistant deputy attorney general Justin Smith’s request to be removed from the case; the attorney general’s office does not have other counsel working on the lawsuit.

Koenig worries about the impact something like an oppression matrix would have on families like his. He has five children, two of whom are Black.

“It is equally as racist to tell them that they can’t be somebody because they’re Black as it is racist telling my white kids that they’re oppressing. It’s racist both ways, and it has no place in public education,” he said.

His bill clarifies that schools may teach the history of slavery.

“I have no problem with teaching history the way it was,” he said, adding he believes the United States’ abolishment of slavery makes the country “great.”

Expanding the curriculum

While Republicans push for restrictions on history curriculum, a pair of Democratic lawmakers — Sen. Angela Mosley of Florissant and Rep. Marlene Terry of St. Louis — have proposed an expansion.

They hope to include facts about Native American and African American history often left out of Missouri classrooms.

Education Next asked parents what they think about the emphasis their children’s school places on “slavery, racism, and other challenges faced by Black people in the United States.” Most parents said the school gives “the right amount” of instruction on the topic.

However, 25% of parents said there is too little emphasis on African Americans’ struggles, and 11% of parents said there is too much focus.

Half of parents with Black children believe the topic could be expanded in schools, the survey said.

Terry, chair of Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said her bill is not “critical race theory.” It is a focus on lesser-known facts of history.

“All students need to know the truth,” she said. “We should not base our history knowledge on a lie. It should just be the truth – no matter if it is good, bad or ugly.”

Some of the lessons described in their bills require a level of maturity, such as discussion of genocide and the invention of modern gynecology through experiments on slaves. The bill denotes the lessons should be dispersed among grades 7-12.

Terry’s youngest grandson is entering middle school, and she enjoys watching his curiosity lead him to Black history.

“A lot of individuals,” Terry said, “especially some of our young folks now, if they knew their history and what some of their ancestors had to go through to get us where we are now, they would appreciate and treat life a little bit better.”

A version of this story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Annelise Hanshaw