February 8, 2023

Associated Press file photo

In a room of mostly white people, a Missouri Senate committee without any Black lawmakers weighed two bills that aim to ban teaching critical race theory in schools.

Critical race theory, a law school-level concept that looks at how institutions perpetuate racism, is not widely taught in Missouri’s K-12 schools. But the term is now used as shorthand for Republicans to describe lessons that involve systemic racism in the U.S.

One of the bills discussed by the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee was proposed by Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, and would also create a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” education transparency portal and an American patriotism education program.

Heather Fleming, director of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership, a coalition of groups that has pushed back against the GOP-dominated legislature’s attempts to oversee school curriculum, pointed out in her testimony that she was one of only a few African Americans in the room discussing how to teach their own history.

Fleming told The Star that as a former educator, the parents are typically upset by the lessons, not the students.

“We’re asking teachers to not talk about anything that might make parents uncomfortable, and that’s not what the point of education is,” Fleming said.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testified at the hearing to voice his support for increasing transparency and empowering parents.

“Frankly, let teachers teach. Let them teach how to read. Let them teach how to write. Let them teach mathematics and not be pushing other things that get in the way of what our teachers got into the profession to do,” Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft is an anticipated Republican candidate for the 2024 race for governor and parents’ rights is just one of his points of focus as he continues to align himself with far-right values.

What can and can’t be taught in schools

Koenig said at the hearing that he did not include a specific definition of critical race theory because people may have differing ideas of what it is. Instead, he opted to include language that specifies the actions not allowed.

The bill states that no school employee can teach “that individuals of any race, ethnicity, color, or national origin are inherently superior or inferior and that individuals, by virtue of their race, ethnicity, color, or national origin, bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by others.”

Those testifying in favor of the bill mostly said how necessary it is for parents to access the curriculum taught in their children’s schools.

Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, combated several opposing witnesses by saying the bill does not state that schools cannot teach a complete history of the United States.

Jeremy Brok, the program director for Cultural Leadership, a St. Louis-based nonprofit aimed at helping young people advocate for social justice and change, said in an interview with The Star that senators keep reiterating that educators should teach history and can discuss facts about racism and slavery.

“But the nuances on why those events happened, what caused them to happen and their direct impact on today’s discrimination, that seems to just continue to be ignored,” Brok said.

Sen. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat, told The Star that it is unwise to look at laws and practices like redlining that have held certain groups down for generations and not see how they affect people in the present day.

“We have to acknowledge those faults and do the very best we can to fix the problems they caused, so that America can be even greater,” Razer said. “Burying our heads in the sand doesn’t accomplish anything.”

The patriotic program outlined in Koenig’s bill would pay teachers $3,000 to complete training to allow them to teach the principles of American patriotism. It received little discussion at the hearing and was mostly glossed over.

The program began as a bill from Sen. Karla Eslinger, a Wasola Republican, who filed the legislation last year and again this year. Eslinger said the program would teach students to understand what an honor it is to be an American citizen.

“We teach civics, we teach government, we teach how a bill becomes a law, but it’s that love of country and that opportunity for freedom that you don’t see in other places,” Eslinger said. “And I just think that a school district should have that option to be able to provide that if they want to.”

Eslinger said ultimately, she wants students to understand the opportunities available in the U.S. that may not be available elsewhere.

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