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Missouri bills would prevent K-12 schools from requiring masks or teaching 'divisive concepts'

Fourth grade students at Spring Branch Elementary in Independence, Missouri, recently dissected flowers during a science exploration on botany.
Independence School District
Fourth grade students at Spring Branch Elementary in Independence, Missouri, recently dissected flowers during a science exploration on botany.

More than 120 bills have been filed by Missouri legislators covering a wide range of topics, from teaching about race and bias to parental rights.

During the past year, concerns about COVID policies, critical race theory and controversial books have highlighted tensions in public education.

In addition, the pandemic has exacerbated teacher shortages and increased calls for “school choice” for families — which could include charter schools, virtual schools or state support for attending private schools.

The Missouri legislature has taken note.

As of Dec. 20, a subject index of prefiled 2022 bills in the Missouri House shows “elementary and secondary education” is the most popular topic, with 84 bills filed. Crimes and punishment comes in second with 69 bills.

The Missouri Senate doesn’t sort prefiled bills by topic, but a Beacon analysis found more than 40 bills related to K-12 education filed by mid-December.

Any given bill might not be heard by a committee, much less be debated by the full legislature or signed into law. Lawmakers can also amend bills at several points in the process.

But this list gives a sense of how Missouri representatives and senators are seeking to address some of the most timely K-12 education issues.

See our past coverage of higher education bills proposed in Missouri, and keep an eye out for a roundup of Kansas legislation.

Critical race theory and ‘divisive concepts’

At least a dozen bills seek to regulate the teaching of controversial topics, including racism, sexism and LGBTQ-related content.

Several bills, such as Republican Rep. Hardy Billington’s HB 1457, would prohibit schools from teaching The 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative focusing on how slavery and the contributions of Black Americans are central to understanding U.S. history. Billington is from Poplar Bluff.

Other proposals, a few of which also apply to public colleges and universities, frame themselves as banning “divisive” or “discriminatory” lessons.

The bills, many of which use similar language, list a litany of concepts that schools would not be allowed to teach, such as that the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist, that people are responsible for actions committed in the past by those of the same race or sex, or that people are unconsciously biased solely because of their race or sex.

One example, HB 1767, is sponsored by Rep. Chris Sander, a Republican from Lone Jack. Under that bill, schools couldn’t promote the concept that “The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”

Some bills, such as Sen. Rick Brattin’s SB 694, explicitly forbid schools from teaching critical race theory or related concepts. Brattin is a Republican from Harrisonville.

Critical race theory is an academic concept usually taught at the graduate school level, but it has become a catchall term for any race- or diversity-related concepts that parents or politicians find objectionable.

A proposal by Rep. Chuck Basye, a Rocheport Republican, would allow parents more control over lessons on sexual orientation (HB 1752). His proposal would require schools to notify parents of plans to teach such content and allow them to pull their children out of class if they object. Current law requires a similar process before sex education lessons.

School curriculum

Some bills would allow or require districts to add content or entire courses on specific topics, such as:

Other proposals would add more scrutiny to school curriculum.

Rep. Dan Shaul, a Republican from Imperial, proposed legislation (HB 1908) that would require school boards to review the curriculum each year in at least one public hearing.

And while Missouri law already allows anyone to inspect public school curriculum, a proposal by Rep. John Wiemann of O’Fallon (HB 1834) would ensure school districts’ residents can do so at no charge within 45 days of making a request. Wiemann is a Republican.

COVID restrictions

Several legislators are working to prevent schools from issuing mask or vaccine mandates.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican from Manchester, proposed SB 646 to forbid public schools from requiring face coverings or COVID vaccination for students. Under the bill, schools could require students to test or quarantine only if they have already tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms.

A proposal from Rep. Nick Schroer, an O’Fallon Republican, also applies to higher education and forbids vaccine requirements for employees and students. The bill is HB 1475.

Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican from Branson, is seeking to include “conscientious” objection as an exception to all school vaccine requirements in his HB 1665. Parents can already receive exemptions for their children for religious or medical reasons.

Expanding "school choice"

Improving “school choice” — typically framed as expanding charter schools and making it easier for parents to choose homeschooling, virtual school or private school — has been a contentious issue in the legislature in past years.

School choice proponents are once again attempting to expand parents’ options, which opponents often argue may harm traditional public schools.

Multiple bills, including SB 648, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, a Republican from Columbia, would give parents the power to decide whether their children can enroll in Missouri’s virtual course access program. Currently, school districts have the final decision.

Sen. Bill Eigel, a Republican from Weldon Spring, filed SB 650 to expand charter schools to anywhere in the state’s charter counties (which include Jackson County and three St. Louis-area counties) as well as cities larger than 30,000. The bill summary lists 15 proposals from the past three years that are similar to Eigel’s.

With rare exceptions, charter schools are currently allowed only in the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts.

Other proposals, such as Rep. Doug Richey’s HB 1552, would adjust how charter schools are funded. Richey is a Republican from Excelsior Springs.

Under legislation sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, a Republican from Sedalia, students could attend public school outside their district under certain circumstances (HB 1814).

Finally, Schroer, the St. Charles Republican, filed HB 1916 to offer a refundable tax credit to parents who pay tuition at a private school or at a public school outside their district.

School boards oversight

Several bills would give parents more control over school board members.

Multiple proposals, such as Sen. Mike Cierpiot’s SB 657, would establish a procedure for voters to recall school board members. Cierpiot is a Republican from Lee’s Summit.

A proposal by Basye, the Rocheport Republican, would allow registered voters to petition to place items on the school board agenda (HB 1750).

School attendance

Rep. Jeff Porter, a Republican from Montgomery City, filed legislation to reduce public benefits for families if their children have poor school attendance (HB 1493).

Other legislation expands the age range for children to attend school.

Currently, students do not have to attend school until age 7. The age students can leave school varies based on employment and credits completed.

A proposal by Ian Mackey, a Democrat from St. Louis, would change the starting age to 5 (HB 1942).

Ann Kelley, a Republican from Lamar, filed a bill (HB 1802) that would also change the starting age to 5 and require students to attend school until age 18, unless they complete high school earlier. The superintendent could still excuse students as young as 14 from attending school full time if they are employed.

Addressing teacher shortages

As schools deal with teacher shortages, some proposals are aimed at filling slots in high-demand areas.

A proposal by Rep. Ed Lewis would let schools adjust their salary plans to provide incentives for teachers in hard-to-staff subjects or schools (HB 1770). Lewis is a Republican from Moberly.

Currently, schools must have a single “salary schedule” that applies to all teachers.

Teachers are also allowed to return from retirement for up to two years without affecting their benefits, as long as there is a shortage of certified teachers in the district.

A proposal from Rep. Rusty Black, a Republican from Chillicothe, would expand the time frame to four years (HB 1881).

Suspensions and expulsions

Mackey, the St. Louis Democrat, filed a bill that would require extensive record-keeping on school discipline that takes students out of the classroom, such as suspensions or expulsions.

His proposal, HB 1899, would also forbid schools from expelling students in kindergarten through third grade in most circumstances.

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon.

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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