Hearing on critical race theory in Kansas schools veers into sex, religion and supposition

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TOPEKA — A state education official told lawmakers Wednesday they need to “stop calling everything under the sun” critical race theory if they want to work together to improve student achievement.

Ann Mah, a Democrat on the Kansas State Board of Education and former state representative, clashed with Republicans during a hearing on how CRT may be infiltrating classrooms in public schools. Mah said CRT has been co-opted for any complaint relating to public schools.

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh my God, they mentioned race, so it must be CRT.’ No, you need to really look at it,” Mah said. “CRT is a graduate level study of institutional racism in the legal system. It has nothing to do with sex. It is what it is. And we’re not teaching it. We are doing, you know, diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re doing social emotional growth. We’re not teaching graduate level legal courses.”

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican in charge of the committee, said lawmakers “have heard that definition over and over.”

“And I think that we’re all little bit tired of that academic definition that does not in any way conclude that CRT application is not being used,” Williams said.

Republicans and parents throughout the hearing used the politically convenient term to describe concerns dealing with sexuality, gender, diversity, history and communism.

Rep. Adam Thomas, an Olathe Republican, said his daughter was given an assignment involving a “gender unicorn,” which “pretty much tells kids that are questioning their identity to either out themselves or just pound it into these kids’ head.”

“I wonder what they’re going to call that next, while we’re changing the names of certain ideal ideologies here,” Thomas said.

Mah said CRT is about the legal system, not sexual identity.

“So whatever assignment your daughter had had nothing to do with CRT,” Mah said. “It may be something you want to complain about and have a local discussion. But it’s not critical race theory.”

Four suppositions

Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican, used a fish tank as a metaphor for how CRT has influenced the public school system.

CRT is not the fish, food, water or rocks, he said. It is the air in the air filter.

Penn blamed the teachers union for pushing dangerous ideas, and he described “four key suppositions” of CRT.

“When you start hearing, reading or seeing things in our academic sphere, you measure them up against this and you know that you are in the land of CRT,” Penn said.

The first supposition, he said, is the idea that racism is normal and pervasive. Any behavior can be blamed on racism.

“This is a new religion that you cannot win,” Penn said. “You will never get out of this purgatory.”

Other suppositions include the idea that racism advances the interests of white people, so they have little incentive to eradicate it, and the idea that knowledge is socially constructed.

Another supposition involves anti-liberalism, which Penn clarified as “classical liberalism,” or personal responsibility, legal reasoning and enlightenment. He explained that this is why people are talking about defunding the police.

“According to CRT,” Penn said, “Martin Luther King would be excommunicated from their church, the reverend that he was, because he doesn’t believe in the separation of races.”

Conflating issues

Three parents from the Shawnee Mission school district appeared before the panel to complain about the district’s diversity, equality and inclusion program.

They expanded the scope of CRT in their complaints to include acknowledgement of the LGBTQ community.

“In our family, we profess Christ and his love,” said Denise Roberts. “If we are truly to be Christ followers, then we must resist and do away with the practice of using ideas of race, sex, gender preference and any other identity to divide, separate, unite or incite people. Anywhere this is occurring is abusive to children and in direct conflict with the values of our home.”

Josiah Enyart said the clear message from the district is “Marxist and communistic.”

“They want to hold back the straight white males and push forward the people of color and LGTBQ [sic],” Enyart said. “This is clear in the attempts at white guilt and desires to lower expectations for all. They really don’t want accountability, nor do they want to allow those who are prospering, if they’re Asian or white, to continue to prosper.”

Amy Thomas raised concerns about lessons at an elementary school dealing with gender identity. She also had concerns with a video she attributed to a diversity club at a Blue Valley school. In the video, she said, a teacher asks students if they make an effort to understand people with different views.

“If you are Christian, do you respect the beliefs of those who are not?” the teacher said, according to Thomas. “If you identify with the Republican Party, how well do you try to understand and empathize with those who identify as Democrat?”

Thomas said the remarks were “extremely offensive to many students.”

“It is not OK to ostracize children who are Christian or Republicans and vilify them as intolerant,” Thomas said.

Mental health

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said she heard from a parent who said a biracial child was left to wonder whether one parent is good and one is bad because of something the child learned in school.

Baumgardner also said she heard about a grade schooler who was assigned to “write a sentence that explains why you’re sorry for being white.”

“I don’t want to hear that those kinds of things are happening in our school,” Baumgardner said. “And we can say that’s not CRT … but those are the kinds of things that are happening in our school. And we can come up with a new name for it, but those are the things that parents are hearing from their children when they come home.”

These issues are creating a new dimension of “mental health stressors,” Baumgardner said, and help explain why parents are losing faith in public schools.

Mah said mental health is one of the biggest concerns she hears from students. They point to a number of factors, including the pandemic, Mah said, but they never say anything about history class.

“Teaching accurate history is hard,” Mah said. “It includes some hard things about our past and present, and learning about racism is one of those things. But learning about racism is not CRT, and I think our students are smart enough to be able to handle those tough topics.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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