by Tessa Weinberg, Missouri Independent
As debates over school curriculum rage nationwide, the Missouri House granted initial approval Tuesday to a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that would allow for lawsuits and funding to be withheld from schools that repeatedly violate the proposed law.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, aims to “to empower parents to enforce” rights laid out in the bill, like knowing what curriculum is being taught and allowing parents to visit schools to check on their children.
“Whether it’s age-inappropriate material, whether it’s books that should not be in front of students at those ages, or whether it’s critical race theory,” Baker said, “some of the things that are happening, we have to address.”
It quickly grew into a wide-ranging piece of legislation tackling transparency in education — an issue that has been in lawmakers’ sights over the past year as they’ve held hearings examining how history and race is taught in Missouri classrooms.
But opponents raised concerns that the bill was duplicative of rights parents already enjoy and that provisions, like barring schools from requiring nondisclosure agreements to review curriculum, were solutions in search of a problem. Baker said it was “preventative maintenance.”
The bill would also allow parents to bring civil lawsuits against districts. If a court found a school knowingly violated the bill’s provisions multiple times, then funds allocated to the school through the state’s foundation formula would be withheld until the school proved it was in compliance.
“You are setting teachers up for a myriad of lawsuits on this particular issue,” said Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood.
The bill requires a final vote by the House before it is sent to the Senate for consideration.
An amendment added to the bill by Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, would prohibit teachers or students from being forced to adopt ideas in violation of sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such as concepts that individuals are inherently superior or inferior based on their race, ethnicity, color or national origin or “bear collective guilt” for the actions their ancestors may have committed in the past.
“We should not have collective racial guilt…” Dogan said. “But we should not have collective racial amnesia. What I think we ought to do is, we ought to have collective pride.”
The amendment allows complaints to be filed with the state education department or attorney general’s office, but does not allow for private lawsuits to be brought against teachers and schools in violation, like a similar amendment proposed by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, did.
“It’s still censorship and still restricts the full breadth of history from being taught in our schools,” Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, D-Kansas City and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said in opposition to Dogan’s amendment.
Other provisions included in the bill require that public school employees’ salaries be included in the state’s accountability portal, allow for lawsuits if school boards fail to follow requirements that allow for public comment and directs the state education department to develop a database for schools to post their curriculum and professional development materials every six months.
Debate Tuesday became tense as lawmakers argued over proposed amendments’ impacts and whether they were meant to generate controversy.
“You’re worse than students I’ve had,” Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, said to Schroer after the two lawmakers shouted over one another.
“Well, I feel bad for your students,” Schroer quipped, soliciting a gavel from House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold.
A large part of the over three hours of debate centered on what lawmakers deemed was appropriate to be taught to students, with Black lawmakers decrying Republicans’ attempts to limit how history is taught.
Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, said the issue of critical race theory being taught in K-12 schools is “a phantom problem” and said it’s part of a political strategy to get voters to the polls.
Despite the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner saying critical race theory is largely not taught in Missouri schools and hundreds of K-12 schools saying they don’t teach its tenets in a subsequent survey, critics have argued the academic concept is still finding its way into the classroom under different names.