The chair of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday warned the state school board that its statement on critical race theory is being viewed as a “smokescreen” and there are four bills in the works to address the issue.
Republican state Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Louisburg told the board there was legislation now being crafted that would “directly or indirectly” impact critical race theory, suggesting that the panel needed a better response to the matter.
She urged the board to be take a firmer position on the issue as the legislative session approaches. She also signaled that legislation is being drawn up that will address the content of books that are taught in the classroom.
“The letter that you sent out publicly that critical race theory isn’t an outcome that we’re mandating as a board – that came across to many people as kind of a smokescreen,” Baumgardner said.
“You didn’t mandate it. But you also didn’t say it is going on in our schools…or it’s not going on in our schools.”
Baumgardner said the board’s statement led to some people searching for evidence of what they believe or define as critical race theory.
“You started to see very concrete examples of how money was being spent, training was going with regard to our teachers,” she said.
“Those bills are going to be introduced. Those bills are going to have hearings. You can’t stand behind the letter that you sent out.
“You’re going to have to weigh in,” she said. “You’re going to have to provide some real data on that.”
Baumgardner made her comments as part of a rare – if not unprecedented – joint meeting between lawmakers and the State Board of Education in an effort to smooth out differences between the two sides.
Critical race theory has bubbled up in this year’s school board races and has been one of the hottest issues in Kansas politics this year.
Schools districts across the state have pushed back, with many flatly saying the topic is not taught on their campuses, although critics have tried to show otherwise.
Critical race theory, developed by legal scholars more than 40 years ago, suggests that racism is more than just an individual bias but is rooted in policies for criminal justice, health care and housing, among other things.
Lawmakers advocating for limits on critical race theory nationally say it’s being taught in a way that fosters divisions among students, although school districts are rebutting the idea that it’s part of their curriculum.
Last July, the Kansas State Board of Education issued a statement that said the critical race theory is wrongly confused with educational equity.
“Critical race theory is not a part of Kansas’ academic standards and has never been a part of Kansas’ academic standards. We encourage everyone to review these standards,” the board said in a statement approved back in July.
“Unfortunately, there are some who are conflating CRT with educational equity. These concepts and practices are not interchangeable,” the statement said.
“Educational equity refers to federal and state policies and requirements for measuring achievement, fairness and opportunity in education.”
“Just as we teach our Kansas students to be judicious consumers of information, we encourage all Kansans to educate themselves on what critical race theory is and what it isn’t,” the statement said.
Jim Porter, chair of the Board of Education, said he believes the statement issued last summer was strong enough.
“I have never found anybody that can give me an accurate definition of critical race theory,” Porter said in an interview Wednesday.
“It’s hard to address issues whenever you can’t get a clear definition,” he said.
While he didn’t see the statement as a “smokescreen,” Porter said it may need to be re-examined. “I stand by our statement, but we will revisit it.”
Noting the rare meeting with key lawmakers on the House and Senate education committees, Porter said the board needs to listen to what legislators had to say throughout the roughly two-hour meeting.
“When you ask people to respond, you need to pay attention to what they say. Whether you agree with it or not, is immaterial,” Porter said.
“She brought that up. Therefore, we need to look at what’s happening,” he said.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to at least have that discussion again. If we need to do more research, we need to do that.
“We need to make informed decisions about how we respond, not knee-jerk decisions.”
Baumgardner also indicated that legislation was in the works to address reading materials that some parents believe are inappropriate.
She alluded to controversies in Johnson County over the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” authored by LGBTQ journalist and activist George M. Johnson.
The book, which includes sexually graphic material, was removed from a middle school classroom in Olathe a couple weeks ago after a parent complained.
The book also appears to have led the Shawnee Mission School District to consider revising its policy for how parents can complain about reading material.
The Shawnee Mission Post recently reported that the district is considering a change after parents complained the book appeared on a reading list issued by a Shawnee Mission elementary school.
Baumgardner didn’t mention the book by name during the meeting, although she later said that was the subject of her remarks to the state school board.
“If you’ve not read portions of some of the books that are out there for sixth-grade kids as material to be used in the classroom for reading, then you need to look at it.
“There’s no way I would ever read that aloud in this group of grownups because the language is incredibly coarse, it is incredibly provocative,” she said.
“If students in the sixth grade were to engage in that kind of conversation, they’d probably be sent to a counselor or the principal’s office.”
Baumgardner said she wasn’t advocating a ban on books, but said schools should be watched for how they’re spending their money.
She said there are two bills coming forward to deal with those kinds of issues.
She said in an interview one of those bills would likely deal with giving parents more power over the reading material used in the classroom.