Springfield School Board members. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

The Springfield Public Schools district is one of seven that Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced Wednesday had been subpoenaed by his office.

The subpoenas seek information from the districts regarding student surveys that the AG’s office alleges included questions about “their parents’ political beliefs and parents’ income levels and included racially-biased questions, among other things.” 

According to the news release from the Attorney General’s Office, the seven school districts had employed third-party companies to conduct student surveys that allegedly asked what Schmitt’s office categorized as “personal and otherwise unnecessary questions about their parents’ political views and income, and questions about their sexuality, as well as racially motivated or leading questions.”

The press release states that the surveys were created by Panorama Education, Project Wayfinder and other third-party companies. 

Springfield Public Schools contracts with Panorama Education, a Boston-based company that states it creates surveys designed to “create safe, engaging, school communities.” The most recent renewal agreement with the company shows that the district pays $87,000 annually to utilize the company’s services.

SPS spokesman Stephen Hall said the survey tool is used to gauge and improve the climate and culture across the state’s largest school district. In one survey-informed report, Panorama’s survey process is described as a key component for the district to improve student achievement and “create the best learning environments possible — for every learner, every day.”

This is the latest incidence of the Springfield school district being in the AG’s crosshairs. In November, Schmitt’s office sued the district, accusing SPS staff of withholding “records relating to critical race theory and anti-racist teaching,” according to a Springfield News-Leader report. 

On Wednesday, Hall said in a statement that Schmitt’s subpoenas are the latest divisive actions he has taken against public school districts. 

“Public education remains a primary target of our state’s attorney general, as demonstrated by his latest actions today,” Hall said. “Springfield Public Schools will always comply with the law. Unfortunately, school districts across our state are incurring ongoing, significant legal fees to defend against ongoing allegations. Missouri taxpayers are incurring the cost of the attorney general’s actions. These attacks are divisive at a time when we need to unify on behalf of our children.”

The release points out that the AG’s office has sent open records requests to districts across Missouri “to increase transparency in our schools.” The results of those requests can be found in a “transparency portal” on the Missouri Attorney General’s website. The only Sunshine Law request linked to SPS is an April 19 request to provide a list of all instructional textbooks used in K-5 classrooms. The district provided that response on April 21. 

Ties to Southeastern Legal Foundation

The announcement from Schmitt’s office comes just over a month after the Southeastern Legal Foundation sent a 23-page letter to the attorney general requesting Schmitt investigate third-party survey companies on behalf of concerned parents in the Webster Groves School District, which is another of the seven districts subpoenaed Wednesday. 

The foundation states in its letter that “the most important battleground in the fight to save our American republic is the public schools.” Attorneys with the foundation are also representing two SPS employees who sued the district, claiming that a diversity training violated their First Amendment rights. 

“Public schools are an arm of the government,” Braden Boucek, the foundation’s director, said in a statement last year. “The check on that power is in the courtroom. It is well-settled law that the government cannot discriminate based on viewpoint, cause individuals to self-censor, or force individuals to accept beliefs with which they do not agree. Unfortunately, that is exactly what SPS is doing.”

Hall said last year that the lawsuit was “part of a misinformation campaign designed to undermine our district’s pursuit of equity for all,” according to the Springfield News-Leader

Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, said in a news release that the subpoenas are intended to “get to the bottom of these surveys and put a stop to them.” 

In district documents, the surveys have been described as valuable resources of constructive feedback. A 2017 presentation outlines a plan for using the survey tool at SPS to conduct surveys on leadership, employee engagement and learning and culture. Including an equity section on future Panorama climate surveys “to assess the cultural consciousness of staff at all levels as way to collect inventory on staff strengths and areas of improvement” was one of several actions recommended in 2020 by a 49-member equity and diversity advisory council that included community members, SPS leadership, educators, students and former school board members. 

How SPS has used Panorama Education

Examples of how SPS has utilized Panorama Education can be found in survey results presented anonymously in several district reports, including the 2021-2024 updated professional learning plan and in a 2020 mid-year update on diversity and equity efforts. In the professional learning plan, results of a Panorama leadership survey of SPS educators, for example, found that 91 percent of teachers strongly agreed or agree that “Professional learning at my site is supported by skillful leaders who advocate for professional learning.” And in the diversity and equity update, 45 percent of sixth through 12th-grade students surveyed answered “no” when asked if their school addresses issues of bias or racism. 

Along with SPS, subpoenas were issued to the Mehlville School District, Webster Groves School District, Jefferson City School District, Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, Park Hill School District and Neosho School District. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson