The debate over critical race theory has cropped up in Kansas. Here's what you need to know.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

A national debate over critical race theory has surfaced in Kansas, after a state legislator requested information on whether it was being taught in classes at the state's public universities.

The attention on the controversial teaching framework comes as conservatives nationally have taken aim at the practice. Legislators in more than a dozen states have taken steps to ban CRT in K-12 education, arguing it is un-American and fans the flames of racial tension.

Scholars, meanwhile, say the practice has been used for decades and merely probes the ways in which racism has become embedded in societal and cultural structures.

Kansas became the latest flashpoint for this debate Thursday, when social media posts showed leaked emails where a Pittsburg State administrator requested information on whether critical race theory was being used in the university's classes.

More:What we know about the critical race theory controversy, impact on education

The request apparently came from Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, who said she was merely reaching out to better understand the complexities of the issue given the national debate and a flurry of questions from her constituents.

Dietrich said she called Board of Regents President Blaine Flanders for information on whether CRT was being taught at the universities, with the Board of Regents then reaching out to the individual schools to gain greater clarity. 

"The Board office did not have the information Senator Dietrich requested, so we reached out to the six state universities to gather the information to respond," Matt Keith, a spokesperson for the Board of Regents, said in an email.

Efforts to block universities, such as Kansas State University, from using critical race theory in curriculum is likely to come up in the 2022 Kansas legislative session.

Dietrich, who previously served as superintendent of Auburn Washburn Unified School District 437, noted she also talked about the issue with Commissioner of Education Randy Watson. 

She added the move wasn't part of any efforts to draft legislation on the subject.

"If I had a question about unemployment, I go to the Department of Labor. ... It's just one of those things where as a legislator, if I don't know the answer, I've got to find somebody who does so that I make sure I'm answering my constituents questions accurately and thoroughly," Dietrich said.

What is critical race theory?

There has been much hand-wringing over what critical race theory is — and what it isn't.

Historically, conventional scholarly narratives about racism have seen it as something that can be alleviated by expanding rights for aggrieved citizens and allowing them to seek redress from government for past wrongs.

But in the latter part of the 20th century, scholars began to examine why the change of the Civil Rights Movement didn't necessarily bring gains for people of color.

In a landmark 1995 book on critical race theory, authors Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas wrote the framework was “to understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America" and to change the status quo in a way that promotes equality.

Opinion: Critical race theory isn't racial sensitivity training. It doesn’t regulate speech.

Experts note critical race theory is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of different ideas and research areas.

But scholars say it isn't about undermining America, promoting racism or other claims opponents, most often led by conservative lawmakers, have put forth.

"Critical race theory, which presupposes that racism is embedded within society and institutions, is not propaganda or anti-American," professors David DeMatthews and Terri Watson wrote in an Education Week op-ed. "It is a toolkit for examining and addressing racism and other forms of marginalization."

Is critical race theory taught in Kansas?

There is no evidence critical race theory is being taught in K-12 classrooms in the state.

At a higher education level, the emails sent to Pittsburg State ask professors a simple "yes" or "no" question as to whether courses involve the practice and the message doesn't define what critical race theory is. It is unclear how many courses meet that criteria, although the University of Kansas said there was at least one class that involved CRT.

Kansas House Education Committee Chair Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said he reached out to school districts earlier this year asking if any had used curriculum in their teaching based on the 1619 Project, a New York Times report "placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center" of U.S. history.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said Kansas would likely continue to examine the teaching of critical race theory in Kansas, with many conservative states banning the practice.

Huebert said the response indicated any teaching of the 1619 Project, or critical race theory more broadly, was at the initiative of individual teachers, rather than being part of a broader curriculum.

"As far as school districts at the local level, embracing and making it a part of the curriculum being used in any school in Kansas, there was no evidence of that happening," Huebert said.

Controversy did break out in Manhattan, when a parade of residents, led by the Riley County Republican Party, vociferously argued a planned teacher training program was promoting critical race theory.

The district wound up scrapping the training anyway due a funding snafu, but board members said they felt the matter was overblown.

“I’ve heard several people say we should judge people based on the content of their character,” Katrina Lewison, a member of the Manhattan-Ogden school board, said, according to the Manhattan Mercury. “Great, but we must recognize the diversity in our backgrounds, and our unintentional biases.”

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said constituents had voiced concerns to her over whether CRT was being taught and she noted the issue has cropped up in area school board races.

"When 60% of our state budget is going to education, either K-12 or higher education, folks are legitimately going to ask what is happening within our school districts and what is happening in our colleges and universities," Baumgardner, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said.

Will lawmakers consider tackling the issue in Kansas?

While Dietrich said she had no plans to draft legislation on the topic, it remains likely to come up during the 2022 legislative session given that other states have already waded into the topic.

Idaho became the first to formally pass a law banning CRT. The bill language prevents teaching that "individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin." 

More:A.G. Derek Schmidt chides President Joe Biden on ATF, education nominees, as well as teaching of race in schools

Variations on this legislation have been introduced in more than a dozen states, including a bill in Texas banning any discussion of white privilege and white supremacy.

At a federal level, Attorney General Derek Schmidt was one of 22 Republican attorneys general who requested the U.S. Department of Education not move forward with grants supporting the development of CRT curriculum.

For his part, Huebert said "critical race theory gets down a rabbit hole that is divisive," although he acknowledged "there were racist people who have been and will be continued to being a part of our country."

 "We want free speech, we want to deal with racism," he said. "But we also don't want to allow an agenda that is, in my opinion, dividing our country and is about identity politics."

More:Kansas teachers must develop defense of inclusive, responsive American history education

In Kansas no legislation was introduced during the 2021 session on the matter. Lawmakers have ended their legislative work for the year, meaning next January is the soonest a bill could be proposed.

Both Baumgardner and Huebert predicted there would be interest in doing so, although thee underscored the need to gather accurate information first.

"I know that there are concerns," Baumgardner said. "We just don't know if those concerns are based in factual information or just what they've heard may or may not be happening in other states. It is really important we glean what is happening in our state."