JEFFERSON CITY — The first wave of education bills this legislative session was met Tuesday with a record-topping heap of testimony at a House committee hearing.
Parents, educators, students and advocates packed a House hearing room to restart an emotional conversation on education policy, revisiting well-worn arguments about critical race theory, parents’ and teachers’ rights and the state of classroom culture wars.
The two bills that drew the bulk of the crowd were House Bill 1995, sponsored by Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, and House Bill 1474, sponsored by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, which are set to be combined into a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” with a section restricting the teaching of critical race theory and related subjects.
Critical race theory, which offers a framework for examining the effects of race and racism on the nation’s institutions, has drawn the ire of conservatives, who say it promotes division and undermines patriotism.
People are also reading…
The bills, Richey and Schroer said, are intended to build trust between educators and parents.
Richey’s bill would allow parents and guardians to censor class materials provided to their children “based on such parent’s beliefs regarding morality, sexuality, religion, or other issues related to the well-being, education, and upbringing of such parent’s child.” Parents and guardians could sue schools for violations of their parental rights and be awarded as much as $5,000 if they win in court. It also allows the Missouri attorney general to sue for as much as $10,000.
“These rights that are listed are fairly benign,” Richey said. “There is nothing in here that is controversial.”
Under Schroer’s proposal, schools would be banned from using any curriculum that “identifies people or groups of people, entities, or institutions in the United States as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.”
Schroer insisted his bill isn’t an attempt “to stop kids from thinking.”
“It’s trying to prevent educators (and) prevent institutions from flooding kids with a certain train of thought (and) teaching them this is the only way to think about these situations,” he said.
Many people who testified — and several lawmakers — sharply disagreed with the two sponsors.
Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, called the bills a “Trojan horse to destroy quality education.”
Committee members of both parties questioned the implications of the bills — a chilling effect on the attraction and retention of teachers, the open-endedness of the vague language and scarce definitions, as well as the potential of lawsuits.
“When we put some of these pieces in place, we are just setting up people to be in court,” said Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood, warning of the potential to set up a “lawyers’ dream bill” in failing to define standards like “divisive” and “controversial.”
Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, questioned the decision to combine the bills, pointing out that Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, has also sponsored parents’ bill of rights legislation.
“I think that’s something that we could get behind as a committee and as a body,” Dogan said. “Whereas this discussion over critical race theory, at least the way it’s presented here in this bill, is not something that unites people.”
Among the people who testified was Heather Fleming, who founded the Missouri Equity Education Partnership last year in response to legislation that proposed similar curriculum restrictions.
Fleming questioned which parents’ rights would be protected by the proposed legislation, expressing concern that the bills would give other parents the right to censor what her child learns.
By the end of the hearing, 1,600 people had filed testimony, easily surmounting the previous record.
A third bill debated Tuesday was House Bill 1747 sponsored by Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, which would institute a procedure to recall school board members. The bill requires 10% of the constituents in the district to petition to recall a board member.
A handful of parents shared experiences struggling to get information or communicate at meetings with school board members in their districts, with one noting the lack of qualifications required to obtain the job.
Opponents expressed concern about subjecting school board members to a “constant election cycle” and adding difficulty to attracting candidates to the increasingly unpopular volunteer position.
One campaign manager for a recently elected school board member noted that in the position the woman had already been sued twice, followed in her car, escorted by police and received a death threat, asking “Who wants that job?”
“I want the school board members to be able to really make a decision that are for the kids and not for politics,” said Jamie Johnson, vice chair of the Platte County Democratic Central Committee.
The bills are expected to come up for a committee vote in the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.