JEFFERSON CITY — While countless Missouri students filled classrooms for their first day of school Monday afternoon, lawmakers gathered in Jefferson City to hear testimony on what those schools should teach and how it should be taught.
A committee made up of legislators from both the House and Senate heard from former teachers, advocates and a student on the role of diversity, equity and inclusion in curriculum and classrooms. While the committee is named for critical race theory — an academic concept that argues racism and inequity are baked into institutions and legal systems — several speakers put aside that line of questioning, dismissing the term several times as a distraction or confusion.
The hearing was contentious, much like the group’s initial meeting in July during which only opponents to CRT were invited to testify. Spoken public testimony was still not allowed at Monday’s meeting, and those on the other side of the argument were invited to give their perspectives. Exchanges between speakers and lawmakers at times veered into back-and-forths on systemic racism, funding disparities and school choice.
Ruth Banks, who taught for 40 years in both K-12 and higher education, said that at no point in her time in schools had she run across the term “critical race theory.” Discussions of race, inequity and differences, she said, were key for “preparing our students to work effectively with people from all backgrounds.”
“I want you to trust school administrators and teachers,” Banks said. “I ask you to respect the expertise of our educators and allow them to teach using tools they deem appropriate to meet our state’s standards.”
A recent survey of Missouri school districts by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education revealed that of the 425 that responded, only three said that aspects of critical race theory were present in their curriculum. (Springfield Public Schools answered ‘no’ to both of the survey’s questions.)
Republican lawmakers continue to insist, however, that the framework — which is almost exclusively found in higher education and law schools — has entered Missouri’s K-12 institutions. A bill during the legislative session earlier this year sought to limit teaching the framework in schools, a move that raised alarm among some educators and advocates for teaching about inequity and broader American history.
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Former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Karen Aroesty said the “story of this nation is a narrative around race,” and urged that difficult conversations surrounding the U.S. and race still needed to happen in the classroom. Noah Arnow, a St. Louis-area Rabbi who testified alongside her, echoed Aroesty’s sentiment.
“To teach history honestly, especially history we see ourselves in, we must be able to acknowledge both the moments we are proud of and those of which we are ashamed,” Arnow told the committee. “Don’t use a sledgehammer for something that requires a teensy little chisel.”
Dee Dee Simon, chair of Missouri’s Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission, also discouraged any legislation, past or present, that sought to prohibit teaching certain aspects of equity and diversity.
Lawmakers have raised concerns about aspects of CRT that they believe promote “white shaming,” or placing the burdens of historic inequity and racism on students’ shoulders — an interpretation that Aroesty and Arnow pushed back on, arguing for empathy and optimism rather than negativity.
Heather Fleming, the founder and director of In Purpose Education Services, called critical race theory an “umbrella term,” and that conversations invoking it were “fighting against discomfort associated with issues of race.”
“One thing that bothers me about this entire conversation is people keep talking about discomfort,” Fleming said. “Discomfort is experiencing racism. It’s continually trying to prove that you’re twice as good to get half the credit.”
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In a lengthy exchange with Sen. Andrew Koenig, a St. Louis County Republican, Fleming criticized what she believed to be lawmakers’ use of the topic to discredit public schools and teachers and push for school choice. Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill earlier this year creating tax credits for private schools, a priority of Koenig’s. Fleming and the senator’s debate also breached larger themes of systemic racism, going back and forth on differences between school districts’ funding in Missouri and student outcomes.
Francis Howell High School senior Mya Walker was the hearing’s final speaker, calling some lawmakers’ treatment of critical race theory “propaganda” and encouraging discussions and teaching of inequity and its surrounding issues.
Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.
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