The first education debate of the 2022 legislative session featured hours of discussion on Tuesday of a proposed “parents’ bill of rights” — and whether it would give parents more say in the classroom or instead have a chilling effect on how certain subjects are taught.
In a sign of where legislative priorities may fall, the first bills heard in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee centered on parents’ oversight of curriculum, banning the teaching of certain subjects and creating a process to recall school board members.
Tuesday’s hearing revived a discussion that has been the focus of lawmakers since last year and renewed previous attempts to legislate how history and race are taught in the classroom.
During the interim, lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Education held a series of hearings where many of the same parents, advocates and teachers had previously voiced their support or opposition to how history curriculum is taught.
House Bill 1995, sponsored by Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, would establish “The Parents’ Bill of Rights for Student Well-Being,” and codify a variety of parental rights — some already standard practice and enshrined in state law — over their children’s education.
“It is not to blow apart public education. It is not to disparage public education,” Richey said. “It is about trust.”
The bill stipulates that parents have a right to review information related to their child’s education, such as attendance, standardized test results and curriculum. It would also direct the state education department to create a form by which parents could ask to be notified two weeks in advance whenever a “divisive or controversial topic that may conflict with a parent’s belief that all persons, regardless of race, ethnicity, color, national origin, or ancestry, should be treated equally” will be taught.
The bill would also establish a process by which parents could file formal complaints to school board policies and request access to information through a district superintendent. Additionally, the state education department must also establish a portal with school districts required to publicly post curriculum and materials taught and speakers and guests used for professional development activities.
Under the bill, the attorney general or parents could sue schools for violating the bill’s provisions and it would impose various fines, with a majority of the proceeds going toward a state fund that provides scholarships for school choice measures, like private school tuition.
House Bill 1474, sponsored by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, would similarly codify parents’ rights to receiving information about what their child is taught and also ban the teaching of “critical race theory.”
Schroer’s bill defines critical race theory as curriculum that identifies groups or institutions “as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed,” among other definitions and specifically points to projects like “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times or curriculum from sources such as We Stories, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that aims to help families have conversations about race and racism.
“What we can do, and I think what schools should be doing, is teaching all history and nothing but,” Schroer said, “not fairytale versions, not politically skewed versions of history.”
Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Kansas City Democrat and a former teacher, described the bills as a “smoke screen” and “a Trojan horse to destroy quality education.”
While some Republican lawmakers said they agreed that they wanted to prevent political indoctrination in schools, they expressed concern that the approach the bills took may prevent the teaching of entire schools of thought rather than presenting students with an array of ideas.
“How do you teach about the civil rights movement without classifying people into groups for any purpose whatsoever?” Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, asked of Schroer’s bill, which also defines critical race theory as any curriculum that would classify people into groups.
Schroer said he and Richey planned to combine the two pieces of legislation — a sticking point for some lawmakers.
Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Ballwin Republican, said he believes parents need to have a defined role in their kids’ education, noting it could be an issue that unifies both parties. Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, filed his own version of a parents’ bill of rights.
But Dogan said he was disappointed to see attempts to dictate how history is taught once again included, noting that last year members of the Black Caucus stood up against attempts to bar critical race theory or the The New York Times’ 1619 Project from the classroom.
Those measures failed to pass in Missouri last year.
“To just blanket ban something like that, and to ban something like We Stories, I think that’s a flawed approach,” Dogan said.
At a July hearing, the state’s commissioner of education said the vast majority of Missouri’s K-12 schools don’t teach the concept of critical race theory, and in a subsequent survey issued by the state education department, nearly all school districts who responded said their curriculum didn’t feature it.
But parents and some lawmakers have insisted the concept is taught in schools, and argued it may go under different monikers.
Mary Byrne, a co-founding member of Missouri Coalition Against Common Core, said the 1619 Project, which detailed the United States’ legacy of slavery, wasn’t being taught as creative literature, but as a recounting of history.
Lindi Williford, a parent in the Wentzville School District, argued that “parental rights are inherent” and are “given to us by God when our children are born,” and instead bills should focus on righting wrongs within school districts.
A parade of students, teachers and advocates also expressed opposition to the legislation, with Tuesday’s hearing running out of time before they could all share their testimony in person.
“They had to pass laws for me to vote,” said Sylvester Taylor, the treasurer of the Hazelwood School Board and a former state lawmaker, who testified on his own behalf. “You never had to worry about where you stood, and now with the stroke of a pen you can eliminate my history from teaching it at all.”
Rob Good, a former Ladue School District history teacher and the current vice president of the Missouri Council for History Education, urged lawmakers to trust students “to be able to establish their own perspectives about history.”
Yoana Zamora Miranda, a high school senior from Clay County, said that after being mocked and stereotyped for being Hispanic, she wondered where preconceived notions about race stemmed from.
“It’s because we don’t know enough about the complexity of race and ethnicity,” Miranda said, later adding: “Students and children are not people to manipulate into what you want them to think or be by banning conversations in the classroom about anything that pertains to controversial topics. That means that you are taking away the ability to become your own individual.”
This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.