Kansas legislators ‘implore’ education officials to prepare for critical race theory and achievement debates
A more forceful response from school officials on issues related to race and curriculum will be needed in 2022, Kansas legislators warned Wednesday, pointing to an expected onslaught of bills on the subject next year.
The frank advisory from legislators came during a hearing with the Kansas State Board of Educations, as both sides try to ease tensions between the two groups that have been brewing for the better part of a year.
Officials on both sides claimed victory on that front, with no shortage of plaudits and platitudes exchanged. But signals from legislators indicate different viewpoints on the shared goal of improving education outcomes for Kansas kids.
While the state board and the Kansas State Department of Education issued a public statement earlier this year saying that critical race theory is not being taught in schools, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, noted more will be required, with numerous bills expected on the subject in the 2022 legislative session.
Scholars say the critical race theory has been studied and used for decades and merely probes the ways in which racism has become embedded in societal and cultural structures. It is most commonly taught at the university level, generally in post-graduate classes.
But the topic has dominated local school board races across the state, with national organizations backing anti-CRT candidates. Baumgardner noted it has been the first question asked of potential board members at candidate forums and door knocking in her eastern Kansas district.
Multiple members alluded to examples of training and curriculum at a local level that addressed issues of race in ways parents found questionable, although it is not clear that they meet the strict academic definition of critical race theory.
"I am going to implore that, as a board, you direct your staff to get real about where we are with CRT in our schools," Baumgardner said. "Because those bills are going to be introduced. Those bills are going to have hearings. And you can’t stand behind that letter you sent out. You’re going to have to weigh in, you’re going to have to provide some real data on that."
She also alluded to a potential legislative push to address provocative reading materials critics argue are being used in classrooms, saying some books are borderline "pornographic" and are inappropriate for their intended audiences. While the exact language of potential bills is yet unclear, they might include requiring that books and other materials be provided well in advance, giving families the chance to review their contents.
It comes as parents nationally have pushed local libraries and schools to eliminate the inclusion of certain books on their shelves. Students and teachers in York, Pennsylvania, for instance, successfully fought a ban on certain materials with Black, gay and Hispanic protagonists in a battle which gained national attention.
Officials set for another round of debate on funding, achievement levels
While state board members noted their appreciation for legislators following through on increasing funding for Kansas schools — a move required by the Kansas Supreme Court — Republicans again stressed their belief that taxpayers are not getting a bang for their buck.
State assessment scores show a stagnating or declining number of students in the top two performance categories on tests both language arts and math in recent years, although no assessments were conducted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That comes despite hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding flowing to schools next year, on top of court-mandated increases in years prior.
While many argue the funding is not going to serve as an immediate fix, conservatives have wanted to look at requiring more benchmarks for how the money is being used and argue state officials are too focused on an overhaul of the state's education standards that is in large part designed to increase students' social and emotional skills.
"What is happening in our classrooms, what is happening in here, what we’re sharing as our focus — we’re not on the same page," said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta.
State board members were largely conciliatory, noting they were fully committed the importance of ensuring achievement gains.
"We look at academic standards all the time," said State Board of Education Chair Jim Porter, R-Fredonia. "But because these other things, the people of Kansas told us these other things are important, too. That is what is getting the press. Each of us are very interested in improving academic standards."
But some members have hinted at returning to a series of policies to expand school choice — a move which would not sit well with local and state education leaders alike.
Baumgardner mentioned there could be a push to increase the amount of per-pupil funding given to students in virtual schools. Currently that number is $5,000, half of the money given for students who learn in person, and the rate hasn't budged in years.
And then there are the more sweeping choice proposals considered in 2021.
Chief among those is legislation that would allow parents to use dollars normally routed to schools for a wide range of purposes, including tuition at a private school. Such a measure failed in the legislature last year but proponents have hinted at another push.
Baumgardner told reporters after the hearing that declining enrollment in public schools — attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic — shows parents want change.
"They're now looking at school in a different light because they're seeing what is not happening," she said.
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-979-6100.