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Advocates urge lawmakers to focus on inequity in education, not critical race theory

Educators, students and advocates urged state lawmakers Monday afternoon to focus on tackling larger issues of inequity across education rather than latch onto the academic concept of critical race theory to further school choice options or ban teaching about diversity and inclusion altogether.

During a nearly two-hour hearing, which took place on the first day of school for thousands of students across the state, the Joint Committee on Education heard from former educators who said they had never encountered the teaching of critical race theory.

“In my 40 years, I had never run across the terminology ‘critical race theory,’” said Ruth Banks, a former teacher and college professor. “I even pulled out the three versions of the textbook that I used in my course; it doesn’t have anything in there on critical race theory.”

But some lawmakers continued to insist there is evidence it is in Missouri’s schools — despite the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s previously saying that’s largely not the case.

“That’s encouraging to hear. It is out there, unfortunately,” said Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs and vice chair of the committee. “You can watch TED talks all day long — educators talking about critical pedagogy, critical race theory and DEI in the classroom. So it is present.”

Richey said the academic teaching’s definitions were fluid, and intentionally so. Meanwhile, experts have said that the academic concept of critical race theory, which is intended to acknowledge how racial disparities are embedded in U.S history and society, is being misconstrued by conservative lawmakers who have sought to ban it.

Monday’s hearing comes more than a month after the Joint Committee on Education’s first hearing on the topic in July where they heard almost exclusively from opponents of the academic concept. One St. Louis County mother said schools “are engaging in psychological abuse of our children funded by taxpayers” as the state’s commissioner of education said the academic concept is largely not taught throughout K-12 public schools in Missouri.

Lawmakers drew criticism for having no Black witnesses testify — with Democratic lawmakers and advocates holding a press conference of their own after last month’s hearing.

Since then, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has released the results of a survey it conducted at the request of Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola. Of the 425 districts and schools that responded, nearly all schools answered “no” to teaching curriculum that featured either critical race theory or the 1619 Project by The New York Times, which detailed the United States’ legacy of slavery.

Advocates said it showed lawmakers’ focus on the issue is a “red herring,” but opponents of critical race theory — including Joint Education Committee Chair Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina  — said they didn’t trust the survey’s results, noting schools self-reported. O’Laughlin later called on Margie Vandeven, the commissioner of education, to be removed from her position, a point Gov. Mike Parson pushed back on.

Legislation that would have barred school districts from teaching curriculum on critical race theory or the 1619 Project by The New York Times failed to pass before lawmakers adjourned for the year in May.

Rabbi Noah Arnow of the Kol Rinah synagogue in the St. Louis area testified he was concerned that lawmakers’ attempts would make it not just difficult but impossible and illegal to teach about the wrongs that have been committed in history.

Heather Fleming, the founder and director of In Purpose Education Services and founder of Missouri Equity Education Partnership, said it would mean being unable to place incidents such as the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi or the more recent fatal shooting at the hands of police that killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., last year into the greater cultural, social and political contexts that connect them.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said he wasn’t denying that racism exists in America today, but questioned if systemically racist systems were still in place.

“The vast majority of our systemically racist laws have been corrected,” Koenig said.

In the course of the hearing, Fleming ticked through statistics that exemplify racial disparities in maternal mortality, school discipline and sentencing in the criminal justice system.

“There are discrepancies,” Fleming said. “Now, here’s what we need to be doing. We need to be having the conversation about why those discrepancies exist. They don’t exist because of critical race theory.”

Mya Walker, a senior at Francis Howell North High School who is also dual-enrolled at St. Charles Community College, argued that much of the anti-critical race theory argument was essentially propaganda.

“Simply put, if you don’t see color, age, gender, sexual orientation and all the dimensions of difference that make each of us who we are, you don’t truly see the person standing in front of you,” Walker said. “Acknowledging our differences is not critical race theory. It is humanizing.”

While legislative attempts targeting critical race theory were unsuccessful this session, lawmakers have indicated the issue will return and be framed as a vehicle to further school choice legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, who is considering a run for Congress next year, told 93.9 The Eagle’s “Wake Up Columbia” Monday morning that critical race theory was a “terrible thing” but also said it was unrealistic that critical race theory was being taught to elementary students — who probably wouldn’t understand it if it was.

Instead, Rowden said, “very, very left-leaning, left-minded liberal teachers” were teaching American and world history with an increased bias than before. The answer, he said, is universal school choice for parents.

“You can ban CRT, you can do all these things kind of around the edges that are designed to make people feel good,” Rowden said, “but at the end of the day if you want to functionally give parents the choice to say, ‘Ok, I don’t like what’s happening in my public school,’ … school choice is the answer to the question, there’s no doubt about it.”

Instead, Fleming urged for real conversations that allow lawmakers and advocates to have nuanced discussions on the issues.

“What I don’t want to do is to have people introducing a bill that basically says I can’t do the work that I do,” Fleming said, “because this is part of a grander scheme behind school choice.”

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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