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MO Senate delays vote on critical race theory ban as Black History Month begins. What happened?

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 2/2/2023 Kacen Bayless, The Kansas City Star

On the first day of Black History Month, state Sen. Barbara Washington felt disrespected inside the Missouri Capitol.

The Kansas City Democrat, a Black woman, was holding the Missouri Senate floor Wednesday evening during debate over a Republican-led bill that would ban schools from teaching lessons on the role of systemic racism in the U.S.

In a tense exchange, Washington accused state Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, of interrupting her while she tried to explain how the legislation seeks to eradicate important parts of Black history.

“What you’re doing is why children need to learn the history of what we come from,” Washington told Brattin, a white man. “If I was a white boy or white man, you would not do this.”

Wednesday’s floor debate was the first chance for Black senators to publicly offer their perspectives on the legislation, filed by state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican. No Black senators serve on the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee, which heard the bill last month.

Facing fierce resistance from Democrats, the Senate ultimately decided to set the bill aside for the night. But lawmakers expect the bill — or at least a version of it — to come up for another debate in the near future.

“It was a prime example of why we need cultural diversity in our education,” Washington told reporters on Thursday.

Koenig’s legislation seeks to explicitly ban the teaching of critical race theory, a college-level academic concept that examines the role of institutions in perpetuating racism. The academic theory is not widely taught in Missouri’s K-12 schools, but the phrase has become a shorthand among hard-right conservatives for any lesson that delves into systemic racism’s role in U.S. history or politics.

The bill would empower parents to file complaints with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education if they believe a teacher has violated the ban on critical race theory. It also calls on the education department to create a training program to “prepare teachers to teach the principles of American civics and patriotism.” Teachers who take the program would be eligible for a $3,000 bonus.

The legislation has been decried by activists and Democrats who say it puts new burdens on teachers and seeks only to exploit anger over hot-button issues over lessons on race and gender issues. Because the bill does not define critical race theory, opponents argue it seeks to eradicate all lessons that examine the role of racism.

“We are attempting to ban any teaching that is not what that parent wants, taking away the rights local school districts have to teach what is best for their communities,” Washington said.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, told reporters Thursday that lawmakers were still negotiating over the fine details of the legislation. He said Black History Month had little to do with why the bill was set aside and pushed back on arguments that the bill targeted Black history.

“The idea that we’re trying to erase history or do anything like that just doesn’t bear out,” he said. “We want parents to have a little bit more accountability and a little bit more of an opportunity to know what’s going on in their kids’ education.”

Rowden said banning critical race theory “doesn’t do a whole lot” — pointing to the fact that it’s a higher education theory instead of K-12. But similar education bans have had real world consequences across the nation. This week, the College Board stripped material from a new nationwide A.P. African American History course that was associated with critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement after criticism from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is expected to run for president.

Last year, DeSantis signed a law that banned lessons on critical race theory, similar to the one being considered in Missouri.

Koenig, in a text to The Star, said he would not disclose what kind of compromise he would be open to with Democrats on the bill until negotiations are finalized.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, on Thursday acknowledged Democrats’ tough position in stopping the legislation as the minority party in the Missouri Senate. He said his caucus was in the process of negotiating with Republicans.

“We’re in a position where there are 24 of them and there are 10 of us. Do we like the bill? No. Do I anticipate any Democrats voting for that bill? No. But we’re going to try to do the best we can to make that less horrible,” he said. “

Chief among Democrats’ prioritized changes to the legislation is an amendment offered by state Sen. Doug Beck, a St. Louis Democrat, that would require public schools to stay at five days a week. The amendment is in response to the growing number of schools that have started offering four-day weeks in an effort to attract teachers.

But, for Washington, the Kansas City Democrat, no amendment would make Koenig’s bill more palatable.

“Dropping the bill would be more palatable,” she said. “It’s a horrible bill.”

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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