Curriculum struggle has Kansas GOP pursuing ‘transparency’

John Hanna and Andy Tsubasa Field
Associated Press

Topeka, Kan. – Republican lawmakers seeking to limit what Kansas’ public schools teach about racism have settled on a proposed “parents’ bill of rights” aimed at giving people outside the education system more power to shape what happens in classrooms and school libraries.

The GOP-controlled Kansas House committee hoped to vote Thursday on a measure that would require schools to post information online about classroom materials, compile lists of materials recommended for “parental review” over violence, sexual content or “excessive profanity,” allow people to push to remove materials from libraries and permit lawsuits over such issues.

A majority-Republican Senate committee could vote on similar proposals Friday.

Conservatives acknowledge that they’ve struggled to correctly label what they’re trying to keep out of classrooms and libraries so that the rules aren’t easily flouted. Some argue that the problems they see are broader than lessons suggesting that slavery and racism still guide U.S. society.

GOP lawmakers said promoting transparency is a good remedy, encouraging fact-finding and empowering parents to watch their local schools – instead of forcing the Republican-controlled Legislature to haggle over legal definitions for critical race theory or other academic concepts.

Kansas state Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, follows comments from senators during negotiations between the House and Senate over education funding and policy, Thursday, May 6, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan.

“Since there is not a firm definition that everybody agrees on, I think it comes down to local control, making sure parents are informed,” said state Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita-area Republican and the House committee’s chair.

Kansas is part of a broader national push by Republicans for such measures ahead of this year’s midterm elections and after GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin made parents’ rights in education a key issue in his successful 2021 campaign. Language in the Kansas legislation borrows from a statement promoted by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

Critics of such measures argue that conservatives still want to restrict what’s taught and ban books and are trying to market their ideas more effectively. They maintain that schools already do much of what conservatives say they want.

“Parents can log online right now and see how their kids are doing and when their homework was due and what they didn’t turn in and what they have turned in,” said Kerry Gooch, a former Kansas Democratic Party staffer who lobbies for the Kansas Black Leadership Council.

Republicans in Kansas initially hoped to follow Oklahoma and Texas in banning critical race theory concepts from public schools. Texas law declares that schools must teach that slavery and racism are “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles” of the U.S. Both states’ laws ban lessons teaching that any person now “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past.”

Critical race theory is part of a scholarly movement developed in the 1970s that focuses on the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination in examining U.S. history and modern society.

State Rep. Patrick Penn, a Black conservative and Wichita Republican, said he still wants to ban critical race theory over its “soft bigotry of low expectations” and teaching “through the lens of victimization.”

But he said of transparency: “I fully support it – anything that gets us to the place that we can actually understand what’s happening inside of our school system paid for with taxpayer dollars.”

Discussions about banning critical race theory led critics of such proposals to argue that conservatives were trying to whitewash American history. They staged a “Teach the Truth” rally ahead of this week’s legislative committee hearings in which several dozen people chanted that slogan.

Mattelyn Swartz, an 18-year-old senior at a small, rural high school about 55 miles (89 kilometers) southwest of Wichita, told the House committee that its bill would have limited her education. She later said that in response to a student’s questions this week, her English class discussed “tokenism.”

“We’ve heard it on TikTok,” Swartz said. “So then that kind of brought it to more controversial topics, which then led into Malcolm X being brought up.”

The discussion came after students read civil rights activist Cornel West’s book “Race Matters.”

“They need to know what the world is out there,” teacher Patti Bobbitt said Thursday, adding later that she assigned the book to teach Swartz and other students about current events.

Lessons or activities dealing with sexual orientation or gender identity or books with LGBTQ characters also would be expected targets.

Supporters acknowledge that the measures would empower parents to challenge materials dealing with a broad range of topics – by design.

“It’s more inclusive,” said Brittany Jones, an attorney who lobbies for the conservative group Kansas Family Voice, acknowledging that she doesn’t like using that term. “They (parents) can object from a multitude of angles.”

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.