WICHITA, Kansas — Lessons about racism and discrimination are part of what Kansas kids learn at school — from kindergarten songs to high school lectures on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled racial segregation unconstitutional.
But a debate raging over those public school lessons is likely to dominate discussion in the Kansas Legislature in the coming year.
The controversy over critical race theory — the idea that slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism are key to understanding American history — has quickly become a battleground in the country’s ongoing culture wars.
“We’re seeing people uncomfortable with particular viewpoints or stories or narratives suggesting that no one should have access to those stories or viewpoints or narratives,” said Nora Pelizzari, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship. “And that’s very dangerous, and it’s very un-American.”
Critics say public schools are echoing liberal talking points in ways that breed white guilt and accelerate racial conflict.
Some parents in the Shawnee Mission school district near Kansas City recently protested a staff training program called Deep Equity, which they say is rooted in the tenets of critical race theory.
“This is 100% indoctrination of youth — dividing students into the oppressed and the oppressors,” said Amy Thomas, a Shawnee Mission parent who testified before a legislative Special Committee on Education this month. “This training brings race into every question, driving a wedge between white people and all people of color.”
Shawnee Mission officials have said the program helps teachers better understand cultural differences and connect with students.
Other parents and lawmakers pointed to documents from Lawrence public schools regarding “anti-racist conversations with families.”
And they decried teaching resources in the Wichita district that featured materials gleaned from the Black Lives Matter movement and The 1619 Project, a New York Times project seen by some conservatives as defining America only by the worst of its racist history. Those materials have since been removed from the Wichita district’s website.
“I categorically reject and deny, out of hand, every single tenet that would say that my sons should be judged solely on the color of their skin and not the content of their character,” Republican Rep. Patrick Penn, who is black, told the special education committee. “That’s the problem that I have with CRT. That’s the problem that Kansas should have with CRT, and shame on anyone who doesn’t.”
State education officials consistently point to the technical definition of critical race theory — an advanced academic framework that probes how racism is embedded in societal and cultural structures. They explain that it’s taught at the university level, usually in post-graduate programs or law schools, and is not part of Kansas K-12 standards or assessments.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh my God, they mentioned race, so it must be CRT.’ No, you need to really look at it,” said Ann Mah, a member of the Kansas Board of Education. “CRT is a graduate-level study of institutional racism in the legal system. … and we’re not teaching it.”
But that hasn’t ended the argument.
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who chairs the Special Committee on Education, said lawmakers “have heard that definition over and over” and they’re not buying it.
“We are a little bit tired of that academic definition,” Williams told Mah. “It does not mean that CRT application is not being used (in schools).”
Pelizzari, with the anti-censorship advocacy group, said policymakers can disagree over American history and race, but that doesn’t mean schools should ignore it.
“Students are learning how to be critical and analytical, and learning how to develop their own beliefs and what opinions they have,” she said. “Doing that in an educational context feels like the best place to do it.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.