Missouri’s state education department says the “vast majority” of elementary and secondary schools are not teaching critical race theory (CRT) — the academic concept examining how social and legal institutions promote systemic racism — but Republicans lawmakers don’t believe it.
In a three-hour hearing Monday, where lawmakers heard exclusively from a half-dozen critics of CRT, they pressed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to produce more detailed survey results showing which schools have aspects of the theory “sprinkled” into their curricula.
“It is being taught, if by some other name,” said Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican who is chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.
Rep. Doug Richey, vice chair and an Excelsior Springs Republican, told a DESE official to define the “worldview, the framework… the paradigm of CRT” when polling schools on whether they teach the concept.
Michael Harris, DESE chief of governmental relations, told the committee the state Board of Education does not have a position on the teaching of CRT.
Curricula in Missouri are determined by local school boards, while the state sets certain achievement standards. In recent months, some school districts in the St. Louis suburbs have sparked parental outrage over the adoption of diversity-focused social studies curricula.
Kansas City public schools this summer began teaching from a curriculum based on The 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine journalism project arguing racism has played a central role throughout American history.
“Having government censor what is or isn’t taught is a slippery slope,” Harris said. “There’s a difference between teaching students how to think versus what to think. If teachers are inserting their personal beliefs and teaching outside of the district’s curriculum, local school leaders and the local board of education should address that directly.”
The hearing came as attempts to limit or ban the teaching of materials suspected to espouse the theory have swept through conservative politics nationwide. Bills banning those teachings passed in five states this year, and Missouri lawmakers briefly debated one without voting on it.
Critics characterize the theory as anything from racially divisive to Marxist indoctrination. But academics have said critical race theory, until recently a concept limited primarily to graduate or law schools, is not something being taught in most K12 schools.
Instead, the term has become a catch-all for curricula or school policies relating to racial or socioeconomic diversity, and any classroom discussions of systemic racism or privilege.
O’Laughlin invited six critics of race-related school initiatives, most of them parents from a handful of suburban school districts, to testify. No proponents were allowed to speak. O’Laughlin said she had invited them because they appeared to have been rejected in attempts to challenge curricula at the school district level.
Some at the hearing, including Weldon Springs Republican Sen. Bill Eigel and Marlien Kovacs, a Clayton School District mother, used the opportunity to advocate for school choice for parents who want to opt out of curricula that include CRT.
“Let Missourians take their public school tax dollars to pay for private school education, that does meet their family’s needs,” Kovacs asked of lawmakers.
Democrats slammed the hearing for being one-sided in a press conference afterward.
“We are here talking about if history makes you uncomfortable,” said Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, a Kansas City Democrat and chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.
O’Laughlin said the committee will hold more hearings on the matter that include other viewpoints.
In Monday’s hearing, critics said the teachings on systemic racism drive students to hate the United States and embrace socialism rather than capitalism. They said by placing blame for historical atrocities such as the enslavement of Black people on white people, white children are being taught in school to feel ashamed and guilty of their identities.
“I know my district said we do not teach [CRT], but we do teach the equity,” said Rachl Aguirre, who identified herself as a teacher and parent in the Kansas City suburbs.
Aguirre said the concept is being surreptitiously taught “using different terms such as equity, social justice, diversity and inclusion and culturally responsive teaching.”
“You could put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” she said.
She declined after the hearing to tell reporters where she teaches, other than at an alternative school for middle and high school students. Aguirre was interviewed about critical race theory on KCMO Talk Radio in June and identified then as an employee of a Lee’s Summit school district.
In an interview, O’Laughlin said she isn’t sure if she wants to propose legislation to ban or limit race-related materials in school curricula. But said she wants to pursue whistleblower protection for teachers who report CRT teachings in their schools.
Most critics said they do want schools to teach students about historical atrocities, such as slavery. O’Laughlin said she’s seen no evidence that material is not taught, but that “it’s not appropriate when you say ‘white privilege.’”
“It’s not appropriate when you say, you can equate white privilege and capitalism.” she said. “That’s not appropriate. We live in a free capitalist society we live in a country that people all over the world come here for.”
Asked whether she believes those concepts could be linked to the enslavement of Black people by white Americans, she said, “I can’t answer for why people did something they did that was clearly wrong.”
“Now, whether that’s a white privilege thing? I mean, how do I determine that?” she said.
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