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Do Missouri Schools Need To 'Dial Back' Lessons On Racism? Some State Lawmakers Think So

Mary Altaffer
In response to a push for culturally responsive teaching that gained steam following last year's police killing of George Floyd, Republican lawmakers and governors have championed legislation to limit the teaching of material that explores how race and racism influence American politics, culture and law.

In a hearing that only included witnesses on one side of the debate, lawmakers attempted to determine if concepts from a controversial legal framework have made their way into public school curriculum.

In a crowded hearing room in the Missouri Capitol building this week, Marline Kovacs said her seventh-grade daughter doesn’t want to be white anymore.

Kovacs said it’s because schools where she lives in Clayton, Missouri, have started teaching critical race theory and its concepts.

“Clayton school district is teaching my children that they are oppressors based on nothing more than the melanin content in their skin,” Kovacs told members of the Joint Committee on Education.

“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,” she said.

Kovacs was one of seven witnesses who testified about the critical race theory, which is sparking debate in states and school districts across the country.

According to the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Doug Richey, critical race theory is a real threat to Missouri’s students and their parents.

“It seems like we're employing various approaches to teaching material that is doing damage to children, and it’s not their white fragility,” the Excelsior Springs Republican said.

“This is destructive, this is detrimental, this is harmful, and it should not be present in our classrooms — at all,” Richey said.

The other side?

Only one witness at Monday’s hearing, a representative from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, was not overly concerned about critical race theory or its concepts being taught in classrooms. And, none of the witnesses were African American.

The hearing was also not open to public comment — only invited witnesses were allowed to give testimony.

“I felt these were people who were personally impacted by the topic that we're discussing,” said state Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, who chairs the committee.

Missouri House Communications
A screenshot of Marline Kovacs' testimony in the Joint Committee on Education's hearing on critical race theory and the 1619 Project in Missouri schools.

O’Laughlin noted that she did extend an invitation to LaGarrett King, a University of Missouri associate professor of learning, teaching and curriculum. According to his faculty page, King is an expert in African American history education and race critical theories and knowledge.

“We wanted to hear from a person who has taught seminars across the state of Missouri, but he declined,” she said.

King also declined an interview with KCUR.

Understanding critical race theory

Critical race theory is an intellectual tradition that emerged in the 1970s to examine how the law produces and maintains racial hierarchy. According to the American Bar Association website, principles of CRT practice include:

  • Recognition that race, though not biological, is socially constructed and socially significant.
  • Racism is normal in society and is embedded within systems and institutions.
  • Racial hierarchy is primarily the product of systems, not individual prejudice.
  • Racial progress is only welcomed when and where it converges with the interests of white people.
  • Recognition that the lived experiences of people of color are relevant evidence to scholarship.

According to Chartbeat, there have been efforts in 27 states to restrict education based on racism, bias and the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. History. The New York Times reported last week that six states have passed regulations on what public school students can learn about the past.

In Kansas, conservatives and liberals have also clashed over how to teach history and politics in schools, and the role that racism has played in America.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is the administrative agency for Missouri’s Board of Education, insists critical race theory and its tenets are not making their way into Missouri schools.

“To the best of my knowledge, the vast majority of our public schools are not teaching critical race theory,” said DESE governmental relations chief Mike Harris, reading a statement from the state commissioner of education.

Harris noted during the hearing that curriculum in local schools is decided upon by local districts. The state legislature creates certain educational standards, and then it’s up to DESE to approve those standards.

According to the joint committee’s website, Monday’s hearing was informational. Staff of the committee noted that no pieces of legislation were connected to the hearing, but that the information gathered could be used to inform future proposals from lawmakers.

A lack of Black voices

“The idea that we're going to have a discussion about how ... a democracy, a civilized society, is going to correct itself by identifying inequities in the past, and then at the same time excluding the very people who are saying that we've been treated inequitably, it’s just — it’s ridiculous,” said Nimrod Chapel, a trial attorney and president of the Missouri NAACP.

Missouri House Communications
Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel gave a statement and answered questions at the House Democrats' press conference after the joint committee hearing.

“What I saw today was a complete travesty of democracy,” he said.

Chapel joined Missouri House Democrats in a press conference after the committee hearing, an effort to balance the scales, said Rep. Richard Brown, a Democrat from Kansas City.

“What we heard today was oftentimes misleading and flat-out false about what's being taught to children in Missouri schools,” Brown said, “and that was by design.”

Brown and the Democrats also invited Heather Fleming to speak at the conference. Fleming is the founder of In Purpose Educational Services, which creates educational programs including educator training and development, lesson and unit planning examples and guidance, and curriculum writing and development.

The group works to “create leaders capable of effectuating lasting change in our systems, communities, groups and organizations, and individual lives,” according to their website.

“As an equity educator, I was disappointed in the way that they misrepresented exactly what I do on a daily basis,” Fleming said. “It is not about making one person feel bad, it is not about shame and blame. It is about; How do we all live in this world together as a cooperative unit, so that we can improve our neighborhoods and our communities to the best of our ability?”

Even Missouri’s conservative governor has attempted to draw a distinction between critical race theory and what is being taught in classrooms.

“Critical Race Theory (CRT) has no business being taught in Missouri classrooms,” Gov. Mike Parson tweeted on Tuesday, “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."

“The backlash against critical race theory and the 1619 Project is a smokescreen by a conservative think tank meant to stir up old race-bait sentiments and stoke fear in white people about people of color,” said Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, a Democrat from Kansas City.

“Even though critical race theory is not taught in our state or nation’s elementary schools, middle schools, or high schools, their mindless anger is meant to chill educators from even broaching the subject of race in our nation,” she said.

If recent moves from the education joint committee chair are any indication, the furor in the Missouri Legislature over critical race theory is only beginning.

O'Laughlin and Republican state Rep. Chuck Basye in May asked the governor to convene a special legislative session to discuss instruction on critical race theory and the 1619 Project in Missouri schools.

“I do believe that some of our educational institutions have stepped into an area that is inappropriate,” O’Laughlin said, “and hopefully we can kind of dial that back some.”

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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