Church and state: Kansas Republicans justify private school handouts with fear of ‘woke ideology’

In secret recording, GOP official warns public schools will ‘weaponize those children against you’

By: - May 17, 2023 3:55 am
Republican governor candidate Derek Schmidt blamed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for academic and mental health challenges of K-12 students and for a shortage of teachers in Kansas classrooms. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Statehouse visitors look at the Brown v. Board mural on the same floor as the House and Senate chambers. When Republicans complain about the supposed indoctrination of school children, they point to rainbow drawings, the national motto, a "God-sized hole" and critical race theory. Their solution involves funneling public cash to private religious schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Adam Peters, GOP chairman in Ellis County, draws a parallel between the average Kansas fourth-grader and Janissaries of the 16th century Ottoman feudal system.

Church and State

Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious views on state government through a series of stories.

The Ottoman empire ripped Christian children from their parents, raised the children as Muslims and turned them into elite warriors, sometimes sending them back to fight their own families.

Speaking at a March 2 meeting of Republicans in Hutchinson, Peters pointed to a “political fertility gap.” Counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 have higher birth rates, but liberals are educating the kids, he said.

“This is why the critical theorists, these people, don’t need to go through the trouble of having children,” Peters said. “They’ll leave that job to you. You can have the children, and then just like the Ottomans, they’ll weaponize those children against you, right? Just like the Janissaries, they can go in and take them when they’re young, bring them back, indoctrinate them, forget everything that you ever taught them. And then when the time is right, they send them back to come after you.”

Peters’ comments were secretly recorded and shared with Kansas Reflector. They resemble a broader view embraced by Republican legislators who worry about the influence of “woke ideology” in public schools.

Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.

At the beginning of the year, Republican legislative leaders said they would fight to protect Kansas children from a “sexualized woke agenda” and “woke ideology” in public schools, even as they struggled to define those phrases. Their proposed legislation included a transgender student athlete ban, which they passed, a voucher program that would have funneled tens of millions of tax dollars to faith-based private schools, and parental rights legislation.

Peters told Reno County Republicans in March that the root of this culture war was based in Marxism, with critical race theory, critical gender theory and queer theory taught in public schools. Peters said teachers who are advancing these theories needed to be stopped.

“If you go to most public schools, the majority of teachers there are not on TikTok talking about how white people are a disease or about how they belong to one of 19 different genders,” Peters said. “Most people are on board with this, but there’s a small radical group that are pushing you. So if you can create a hostile environment for them and make it clear that they’ll be held accountable for this, they will either move on or they’ll stop doing what they’re doing.”

He praised legislation drafted by Wichita Republican Rep. Patrick Penn that would allow parents to sue teachers for introducing undesirable ideas and make them liable for damages starting at $10,000. Penn didn’t formally introduce the legislation during this year’s session.

Rep. Michael Murphy, R-Sylvia, seen during a March 1, 2023, legislative hearing, identifies parental rights legislation as an answer to the supposed indoctrination of public school kids.
Rep. Michael Murphy, R-Sylvia, seen during a March 1, 2023, legislative hearing, identifies parental rights legislation as an answer to the supposed indoctrination of public school students. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Michael Murphy, R-Sylvia, said during the meeting at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson that Republicans had found a sneaky way to prevent critical race theory from being taught to public school kids.

He was referring to a bill that would allow parents to opt their children out of any lesson they find objectionable, and declared that parents should have the sole “moral or religious training of their children.”

“It’s kind of a slick little way of doing it,” Murphy said.

Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bill, however, and the House failed to override her veto in late April.

During legislative debate on the bill, Rep. Susan Estes, R-Wichita, pointed to a teacher asking a student about their preferred name and pronouns as an example of situations the bill was meant to prevent.

Legislators throughout this year’s session repeatedly sounded alarms about the supposed “indoctrination” of children in public schools.

Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, published a fourth-grader’s rainbow drawing without permission in his February newsletter. Proctor said the rainbow was proof of a “radical, woke agenda” and that he believed students in the school had been influenced into creating LGBTQ content.

In January, Rep. Ron Bryce, R-Coffeyville, introduced legislation that would require public K-12 schools and universities to “prominently display in a conspicuous place” the national motto, “In God We Trust.” The bill would require the words to be in a large font size on an easily readable poster or framed image that is at least 11 inches wide by 14 inches high, and is the central focus of the  display.

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, pushed a school voucher program that would allow students who already attend private religious schools to receive about $5,000 apiece in public funding. Williams defended the measure as a way to help children access religious education.

“There are some kids that do need Jesus first, before they care about science and math,” Williams said at a March 19 forum in Augusta.

Officials from Catholic and Christian schools testified in favor of her unregulated voucher program.

“With accountability to the Lord, the Board of Trustees, Parents, and to an accreditation agency — there are more than adequate controls to ensure that schools fulfill their mission by offering a Biblical worldview education for their students,” said John Walker, superintendent of Central Christian School in Hutchinson, in Feb. 2 written testimony.

Rep. Kristey Williams, a driving force behind a voucher program for private schools, watches the voting board during a March 15, 2023, vote on the program.
Rep. Kristey Williams, a driving force behind the proposed voucher program for private schools, watches the voting board during a March 15, 2023, vote on the program. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Williams’ voucher proposal died in the last days of the legislative session, but lawmakers adopted a K-12 education budget that would expand a private school tax credit and allows private school students to participate in public school sports and other activities.

Critics said these provisions are intended to draw students away from public schools and into private, often religious, schools.

I’ll tell you one thing that’s missing in our society, and you won’t find it, generally, openly in public schools, and that’s the spiritual perspective,” Williams said during the March forum in Augusta. “If a parent believes having Jesus with their education is important, they can do that. There’s a God-sized hole in a lot of people’s hearts.”

In an interview for this series, Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Topeka Democrat and pastor, mocked Williams’ comment.

“That’s a big hole, if it’s a God-sized hole,” Schlingensiepen said. “How big is God? That’s the question.”

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said most people support public education.

“Christian conservatives do not because they think it’s undermining their parental authority,” Rieber said in an interview for this series. “It interferes with the ability to have good policy, it interferes with the ability to actually care for people and it also privileges a certain way of understanding the world. Hierarchies — men on top, white people on top, Christians on top — are natural and they should not only be accepted, they should be supported. That’s not the way I look at the world.”

At the meeting of Republicans in March, Reno County Commissioner John Whitesel said Republicans need to fill school boards with candidates who will “put God back into our schools.”

“I will tell you, if you get into this fight, they will hate you,” Whitesel said. “You will get threats. It’s not an easy fight, but you know something? We’ve got God on our side, and nothing they can do will be able to hurt us if he doesn’t let it.”

Whitesel said it didn’t matter if candidates know anything about education. They just have to be willing to “put yourself on the line.”

“As parents,” he said, “we’ve gotta stand up. We’ve gotta protect our kids.”

“If my kid gets in trouble because he stands up to critical theory or he stands up to anything in the school that he knows is right and he gets in trouble for it, I’m giving him 50 bucks,” Whitesel said. “We need parents to enable their children to do the right thing.”

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.