Kansas lawmakers rebrand complaints with public education in push for ‘school choice’

House panel provides platform for two parents’ objections to themes of LGBTQ tolerance, implicit bias, white privilege

By: and - January 30, 2022 3:50 am

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, presides over a Jan. 24, 2022, hearing on “critical pedagogy” at the Statehouse in Topeka. Williams says she intends to focus on parental rights and school choice in her K-12 Education Budget Committee. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Lawmakers in the Kansas House began laying the groundwork last week for redirecting taxpayer money from public to private schools by holding a two-hour hearing on complaints two parents have with diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, organized the discussion on “critical pedagogy” as a rebranding of critical race theory, although the parents and members of her K-12 Education Budget Committee continued to invoke CRT as the anti-American “religion” lurking behind staff training and curriculum in schools.

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, introduced familiar legislation at the start of the hearing that would allow parents to pull their share of state aid out of a public school and into a savings account, where the money can be applied to private school tuition. Williams scheduled a hearing on House Bill 2550 for Tuesday.

In an interview last week with Americans for Prosperity, Williams outlined goals for her committee. They include installing a parental bill of rights, to make sure parents know what their children are being taught in school, and providing “school choice,” a reference to using taxpayers dollars for private schools.

“We do want the money to follow the student,” Williams said. “If the student succeeds, Kansas succeeds, our communities succeed, our families succeed. It’s a win-win.”

David Smith, right, spokesman for Shawnee Mission School District, and Mark McCormick, spokesman for ACLU of Kansas, appear Jan. 24, 2022, before the House K-12 Education Committee for a discussion on “critical pedagogy.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The conversation on critical pedagogy pitted David Smith, spokesman for Shawnee Mission School District, and Mark McCormick, spokesman for ACLU of Kansas, against Denise Roberts, who removed her children from Shawnee Mission schools, and Tamara Seyler-James, a parent in the Blue Valley School District.

The two white parents objected to themes of LGBTQ tolerance, implicit bias, white privilege and white fragility. There was no indication from William that parents of Black or LGBTQ students would be able to air their grievances before the Legislature.

“They purport to teach my child about implicit bias, and then drive the conversation exclusively toward the topic of whites behaving badly, as opposed to balancing the equation and stating that everybody, no matter their skin color, is human, and is flawed and could commit the sin of bias and racism,” Seyler-James said. “I find that problematic.”

McCormick objected to remarks Williams made in a hearing last year in which she connected critical race theory to teachings that cause white children to feel shame.

Williams denied that she ever said “pedagogy saddles white children with the sins of their ancestors.” History, she said, has never been the topic or focus.

In a hearing on Oct. 28, however, she said an examination of any race would reveal “things that you would be very disturbed to know.”

“But to place that burden on a little white girl, compared to another person of another ethnic or racial background, is wrong,” she said. “And she should not feel shame or guilt for something that she cannot control — one, her skin color; number two, the past that predated her.”

Myths, McCormick said, shape reality.

“And that’s precisely why I saw no value in discussing critical pedagogy — because it feels like the same old mythmaking and fear mongering that frankly we need to dispose of,” McCormick said. “Here’s the truth: Race was an organizing principle in the formation of this nation. Any racial reckoning requires an understanding of this fundamental fact.”

Tamara Seylor-James, a parent in the Blue Valley School District, says she can draw a line between supporters of critical race theory and elements of student curriculum used in the district. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Smith defended his district’s use of diversity training for staff as an effort to “relentlessly create a fully unified, equitable and inclusive culture.”

“Our community set forth for us some very clear beliefs,” Smith said. “Every individual has inherent worth and deserves to be valued and celebrated. A community strength is derived from its diversity. Respecting community’s diversity and each individual’s dignity demands equitable access. A thriving community meets the basic physical, social and emotional needs of its members. Safe and caring relationships are essential for learning and growth. These are things that our community strongly believes.”

Williams recited a long list of quotes she attributed to an individual involved with the company that produces the training materials used by Smith’s district. The examples involved the role white people have played in systemic racism.

Do these examples, Williams asked, sound like they are creating a unified culture? And do kids feel more or less belonging when separated by race?

“The examples you gave are not things that we have done in the trainings in our district,” Smith said.

Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater, proposes that the U.S. Declaration of Independence marked the beginning of the end for thousands of years of slavery. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater, said he was frustrated with bureaucratic answers from Smith.

“We got nothing,” Hoffman said. “You gave us no specifics about what you teach.”

Hoffman also pointed out that slavery existed for “thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years” before the United States endorsed the dehumanizing trade.

“Our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, was probably could be the nail that started the ending of slavery,” Hoffman said.

Rep. Adam Thomas, R-Olathe, said there are school boards that celebrate bringing ideas of CRT into the district, although he declined to identity them.

Thomas, who is white, announced that his own family tree involves two Black nieces, a biracial niece and nephew, a Latina niece, and a niece who is gay.

“My fear for them is all of these things that we’re talking about will start to impact their relationship with me,” Thomas said. “So it’s a huge concern.”

Thomas asked if parents should have the final say in what is taught to their children. Smith said it would be impractical to give each of the parents of 27,000 students “the right to decide on every single piece of our curriculum.”

Denise Roberts speaks out against schools turning children into activists. She says she pulled her three children from Shawnee Mission schools after the district offered to provide one of her children weekly counseling. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Roberts, whose verbal and written testimony was laced with anti-LGBTQ comments, said she pulled her three children out of the Shawnee Mission schools after the district offered counseling to one of her kids.

Schools should consider age appropriateness when discussing gender identity, Roberts said. She proposed that preferred pronouns can become “weaponized.”

“I just don’t want my child encouraged to be an activist,” Roberts said. “They’re very, very young. They’ve got a lot going on in the past two years. They’re still going to school in masks. They don’t get to have their homecoming. They don’t get to have anything the way that they normally did. And on top of that, our district has decided that it’s important to teach them to stand up to fight oppression, use your voice.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.