Local and state school boards grapple with critical race theory as national debate comes to Kansas

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

Haven, Kansas, is about the last place most people would expect a debate on critical race theory.

The small town of 1,200 people halfway between Hutchinson and Wichita is a far cry from New York City or Chicago or other larger districts that have rethought the teaching of issues of race and American history — moves that have embittered conservative lawmakers nationally.

But as the debate surrounding CRT, primarily taught at institutions of higher learning, has divided educators, legislators and parents, one member of the Haven Unified School District 312 board decided they needed to take a stand.

Board member John Whitesel introduced in May a proposal in response to the debate, though it goes beyond the academic definition of critical race theory.

The language bans training or teaching that professes that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex," that an individual is inherently racist or sexist because of those characteristics or that a student "bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex."

"It is all indoctrination," Whitesel said during a board meeting on the matter Monday. "It is teaching our students when they’re youngest and at their most vulnerable that, ‘Hey, this is a good thing.’ I’m sorry, that is garbage and it doesn’t belong in Kansas. We need to be tolerant of each other, but we don’t need to be advocating this and we don’t need to be bringing this up to kindergarteners."

While state legislators indicate they will initiate a statewide effort banning critical race theory, it is still unclear how they will define the term. And even if more concrete proposals crop up, such a bill couldn't be passed until 2022 when legislators return to Topeka for their annual legislative session.

More:The debate over critical race theory has cropped up in Kansas. Here's what you need to know.

Meanwhile, the debate has become acute in districts like Haven — something likely to escalate in the months ahead, with local school board elections on the agenda in the fall.

Even still, officials — ranging from local board members to school superintendents to the Kansas State Board of Education — are urging caution on the issue. Many are puzzled that the debate over a theory more closely associated with graduate school is cropping up in Kansas.

"It was kind of putting the cart before the horse a little bit," said Bill Royer, another member of the USD 312 board. "I didn't think we were there yet. Most of that stuff happens in the metro areas. I thought we would have been insulated from that at this point, but here we are.

"I know it is out there but I didn't think lil ol' USD 312 would be one of the first to have something crop up."

‘It kind of feels like we're bringing politics into the schoolhouse’

For Haven Superintendent Chuck Wedel, the whole debate was, in effect, much ado about nothing. 

Critical race theory isn't being taught in the district, Wedel said, and he called the language in Whitesel's policy "nebulous."

"We'd love to be focusing on our kids and preparing per school year, and we're going to continue to do that. I mean, this won't keep us from doing that," Wedel said. "But certainly, it kind of feels like we're bringing politics into the schoolhouse."

Scholars say the critical race theory has been studied and used for decades and merely probes the ways in which racism has become embedded in societal and cultural structures. 

In a landmark 1995 book on critical race theory, authors Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas wrote the framework was “to understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America" and to change the status quo in a way that promotes equality.

Experts say critical race theory isn't about undermining America, promoting racism or other claims opponents have put forth. They also note it is rarely taught at the K-12 level.

More:Kansas State Board of Education, Legislature try to rectify ‘turf battles’ after rocky year

The debate in Haven mushroomed in recent days, with board members saying they received a barrage of texts and emails from residents on the matter before it was to be discussed at a school board meeting earlier this week.

During the meeting, the panel attributed this to the growing involvement of state legislators, notably Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, one of the Legislature's most prominent conservative firebrands. Accusations were made that the district was embracing critical race theory and members expressed concerns that the intent of the proposal had been misconstrued.

Whitesel urged action, arguing a diversity and inclusion taskforce in the district amounted to critical race theory. 

But other members were ultimately skeptical, not because they supported the framework but because of how it had wound up dividing the community, as well as a range of questions that could be left unanswered.

Wedel said, for instance, that he was concerned the language could rope in speech or curriculum in a way that could chill the actions of teachers and students. While the state sets standards in history and social studies, it is ultimately up to the local districts to figure out what that looks like.

"I think you would have to start getting into that question — what can we teach? What can't we teach?" Wedel said. "How does this affect U.S. history being taught? So I don't know that I have all the answers to that other than ... it could potentially complicate our teaching."

Ultimately, members elected to pass a less formal memorandum of understanding that CRT wouldn't be taught in the district. But they did so with the knowledge that the issue was unlikely to go away anytime soon — and that the eyes of the state were, improbably, on Haven.

"At this point in time, making it an actual policy? Let’s let somebody else go down that slope first," Royer said.

Issue becomes part of school board races statewide

A little more than two hours northeast of Haven, in Manhattan, the issue has similarly taken on a life of its own.

Controversy began in the college town in April, after Manhattan Ogden Unified School District 383 purchased seminars on culturally responsive teaching. The purchase was later rescinded, the Manhattan Mercury reported, but that didn't stop the Riley County Republican Party from urging residents to speak out at a May meeting.

The Mercury reported that the seminars in question were a bid to help improve the experience of marginalized students within the school system — although the culturally responsive teaching label coincidentally shares an acronym with critical race theory.

The debate continued throughout June, with tensions boiling over at a meeting earlier this month.

At one point, the board stopped the meeting, booting the public from the room in a bid to restore calm. After a brief recess to determine whether the move would comply with the state's open meetings law, the hearing continued before an empty room. 

The debate has continued at subsequent board meetings. It has also bled into ongoing school board elections for USD 383 — something true in many districts across the state.

Several Wichita-area school board candidates, for instance, have signed a national pledge underscoring their support for the notion that students "should be taught to take pride in their country" and that civics education shouldn't "coerce students into engaging in extracurricular political action on behalf of contemporary policy positions." 

Attorney General Derek Schmidt and former Gov. Jeff Colyer, the two main Republican candidates for governor, also signed the statement, with both men using the issue as a core plank of their campaign.

The group promoting the pledge, 1776 Action, has already purchased television ads in New Hampshire, urging legislators in that state to take action banning critical race theory. Adam Waldeck, president of the group, said he could envision similar campaigns in other states, including Kansas, if legislators were weighing similar action.

And while he didn't expect the group would endorse candidates, Waldeck noted the issue would be influential as voters head to the polls in local races later this year.

"This is such an issue that's only going to get bigger," Waldeck said. "And I just think that any anyone that touches education in any way, whether they currently are in office or they're running to hold that office, they owe it to voters to basically say where they stand on it."

But many school board candidates announced their campaigns before the critical race theory debate became a new front in the national culture wars.

Teresa Parks, a candidate for school board in USD 383, said she was a graduate of Manhattan High School and had four kids attend the district. She said many opponents of the training were misinformed about its intent to help the district better support students she said weren't feeling safe at school.

But the debate was "the last thing on my mind" in deciding to run, she said.

"Why are we even arguing for this one topic when there is so much more that we need to be focused on to make sure our kids are successful," Parks said. "I feel that our kids are one of our greatest resources moving forward in making sure that we are going to be who we want to be as a country. But it is hard for us to set an example for these kids on how to be responsible and polite adults when we are really kind of crazy here."

State education officials weigh in with legislative action expected

Districts across the state, ranging from Olathe to Wichita, have put out public statements distancing themselves from critical race theory, pledging it isn't being taught in their schools in an effort to put the debate to bed in Kansas.

State education officials have made similar statements, underscoring that the framework isn't a part of Kansas' curriculum standards, which Kansas Department of Education Commissioner Randy Watson said have "always" been developed by the state's teachers.

"It has never, ever included critical race theory, nor does it today," Watson told the state board of education Tuesday.

Kansas State Department of Education Commissioner Randy Watson discusses critical race theory at a meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday.

But conservative legislators have said they felt the state board hasn't done enough to address the subject, which surfaced amid an already strained relationship between the two entities.

More:Kansas State Board of Education, Legislature try to rectify ‘turf battles’ after rocky year

"To me, when (the state board of education) know inaccurate information is being taught in our schools and that taxpayers are paying for it and they’re not willing to step up and shut it down, that is a major issue for the state of Kansas," Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said during a legislative hearing last week.

In the meantime, Wedel, the Haven superintendent, said he would like more guidance from state officials and the Kansas Association of School Boards on the matter.

But Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for KASB, said the organization felt the matter should be handled at the local level for the time being, noting that is where curriculum decisions are made.

"From our viewpoint, we're not hearing from our members yet that they think that something needs to change," Tallman said.

But statewide debate on the issue is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Three legislators, including Tyson, have vowed to introduce legislation banning CRT next session, although it still unclear how they will define the framework. Other states, including Texas and Oklahoma, have passed legislation limiting what can be taught about race, gender and sex in the classroom.

Jim Porter, chairman of the Kansas State Board of education, speaks at a meeting earlier this year. The board approved a statement earlier this week noting that critical race theory isn't a part of Kansas curriculum standards

For their part, the state board of education adopted a public statement of its own Wednesday disavowing the notion that CRT is in line with Kansas standards and urging the public to better educate themselves on what the framework entails.

Board Chair Jim Porter, R-Freedonia, said the response was unlikely to placate critics.

Porter added he was unafraid of what the political fallout would be from the issue. He termed it "a political football."

"I've said this before, if I get defeated, because I did the right thing, I can live with that," Porter told reporters. "I'm not going to make any decisions on this board based on whether or not I get re-elected. I haven't and this is my sixth (year)."

He paused.

"Bring it on."