JEFFERSON CITY — The Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee voted along party lines at a Tuesday hearing to pass bills that would give parents greater involvement in their children’s education.
Senate Bills 4, 42 and 89 prohibit the teaching of critical race theory or similar concepts, require school districts to post curricula on their websites and allow parents to inject themselves into their child’s education in several ways.
The committee discussed SB 42 on Tuesday and held a hearing on SB 4 and SB 89 last Wednesday, combining all three in Tuesday’s vote because of their similar content. The bills collectively contain provisions often referred to as the Parents’ Bill of Rights.
Many opponents of SB 42 crowded into the Senate lounge to testify.
Luz María Henríquez, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said SB 42 violated the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution because it would “ban speech that can help counteract racism and discrimination.” She said the bill failed to address what would happen if a child’s parents disagree on what is best for their child, and she argued that it would cause lengthy, costly litigation for the state and jeopardize federal funding.
Neil Jaffe, owner of St. Louis-area textbook supplier Booksource, said SB 42 would be bad for business because the bill is too vague on what counts as critical race theory and could lead to widespread bans on material that simply discusses diversity.
“If schools aren’t teaching critical race theory, then why should they be worried about this bill?” Jaffe asked. “They should be worried about this bill precisely because of how it confuses critical race theory with any form of teaching equity, intolerance and history.”
Chairman Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, countered that the bill is only seeking to ban material that claims someone is inherently oppressive by nature of their race or sex and that it would not prohibit discussion of diversity.
James Harris, a Missouri resident who is a lobbyist for Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project, was the only person to testify in support of the bill. He said low academic performance in Missouri since 2020 indicates that schools need to focus on the basics such as English, math, science and history and put “questionable curriculum” on the “back shelf.”
“When you look at the mediocre test scores in this state, I just submit logically, there’s no time to add hocus pocus 1619 (Project),” Harris said.
Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, said the biggest problem facing Missouri’s education system isn’t test scores — it’s four-day school weeks and teacher shortages. He said parents are not concerned about critical race theory to the extent that Harris believes they are and argued that more restrictions on curricula will only drive more teachers away from teaching.
Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said Harris’ testimony suggested he does not want schools to teach children to think critically by engaging with difficult concepts.
“Schools are now worried about being able to teach those skills and offering different viewpoints and lenses out of fear that it may offend a parent who then will use legislation like this to file a lawsuit,” Arthur said.
A hearing last week on SB 4 and SB 89 drew many supporters, including Secretary of State John Ashcroft, while also provoking opposition.
SB 42 originally contained language that would have prohibited transgender girls from playing in girls’ sports in public schools. Koenig struck that language from the bill because other bills are expected to address the issue.
Two former high school athletes and a high school counselor testified against this part of the bill, arguing that there are fewer than 10 transgender high school athletes in Missouri and barring them from sports would worsen their already difficult struggle for acceptance.
Koenig and Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, argued that barring transgender girls from sports is necessary because biological men have an advantage over biological women and transgender girls would steal scholarships from cisgender girls. Beck pushed back that the bill would worsen the suicide rate among transgender children, which is much higher than the rate for cisgender children.
The committee also discussed Senate Bill 5, which would allow students to attend a school district in which they do not reside. School districts could choose whether to participate in the program, and the state would create a fund to help reimburse parents for transportation and other costs.
Koenig, the bill’s sponsor, said SB 5 would allow students to avoid bullying and choose a school that fits their educational needs and parents to send their children to a school that best fits their schedule.
Robert Davis, who had grown up in the public school system in Normandy, said more school choice would help people like him who were victims of bullying. His school district had a transfer option that allowed him to transfer to the Francis Howell School District, but the program was temporarily suspended, leaving Davis and his father to rent an apartment so he could continue attending the more welcoming Francis Howell.
Dava-Leigh Brush, who taught in several school districts throughout her career, said she believed SB 5 would be devastating for neighborhood and rural schools because students would flock away to better-funded schools with more opportunity. She said the legislature instead needs to get to the root of the problem and support these struggling schools.
“I think that this is a very simple, seemingly simple, solution to a very complicated problem,” Brush said.