Kansas parents and the public are uncertain and confused about the teaching of history and racism

Last week brought a rocky two-day meeting of the Legislature’s Special Committee on Education. The purpose was to examine the decline in student achievement as shown on state assessment scores.

Nevertheless, almost an entire day was spent on testimony about Critical Race Theory.

Republicans, special interest group leaders and parents held forth that CRT is currently being taught across the state. This despite the Kansas State Board of Education’s widely publicized stand that CRT is not part of state curriculum standards — a viewpoint recently praised by the nationally recognized Aspen Institute Director of Education and Society Programs Danielle Gonzales.

While most speakers before the committee agreed that CRT as a theory to explain all of history was not being taught in Kansas, many pointed to instruction that focused on equity, social-emotional learning and diversity as actually promoting CRT.

Moreover, some speakers challenged school library offerings based on language and graphics in books dealing with race, gender or sexuality.

The testimony, which can be read at Kansas Legislative Sessions website, is troubling. Are the passionate reactions from parents on target or simply viewpoints formed by a national effort by Republicans to shore up their conservative base and become the party for parents?

Or did the parents’ comments validate perspectives of Libertarians who simply don’t believe in public education?

Or were they voices of those who wish to lay the groundwork for dismantling public education under the guise of state-funded vouchers/scholarships to private schools?

Perhaps none of the above — a review by Education Week reported that 42% of respondents to a Newsweek poll had never heard of CRT.

Whether the parents’ testimony represents squeaky-wheel complaints of a vocal minority or not, the incensed advocates who testified shouldn’t be viewed as representing Kansas public opinion.

The Education Week review confirmed only one common finding — parents and the public are uncertain and confused about the teaching of history and racism.

Yet when this much fervent concern is raised, KSDE and the Legislature have an obligation to let the public know that the complaints are heard, understood and will be addressed.

Dismissing the public’s concerns about how race and gender are taught could result in loss of creditability for both KSDE and the Legislature’s education committee.

Overall, committee testimony pointed to major underlying issues:

• The right of parents to be heard, their right to know what’s being taught and their right to protect their child’s privacy.

• The right of local schools to establish equitable, inclusive learning environments through teaching accurate depictions of history including the problem of systemic racism and the accomplishment of American world leadership in advancing human rights.

• The influence of political parties, national organizations and for-profit publishers of learning materials to dictate Kansas curriculum.

• The need for decision making to include those involved in K-12 education — students, teachers, parents, administrators and the local community.

At the end of the second day, there was no consensus on any of the above. However the committee did circle back to its original purpose and agreed to a meeting of KSDE and legislators after the start of the next legislative session in January to begin working together on improving reading achievement in the early grades.

It’s a good place to start on a difficult journey.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas parents uncertain, confused about teaching of history, racism