JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Senate is one step closer to approving an education reform package after days of meetings behind closed doors.
The end result of the legislation is watered down from the first proposal, which would have prohibited educators from teaching critical race theory, but the bill didn’t exactly define what that was. In the version given first round approval Thursday, that language is now removed, and instead there are provisions limiting how race is discussed.
“It’s more palatable,” Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, said. “I still hate the bill.”
It’s a plan that has been worked on behind the scenes for years.
“That is something we’ve held off for almost two years now, and I think we’ve done an extremely good job as holding off as long as we have,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said. “I’m hesitant to say it’s the best possible version, but definitely light years away from where it started.”
Senators spent Wednesday perfecting the bill. Senate Bill 4 would establish a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” requiring school districts to allow parents to review their student’s curriculum. Parents could ask to review or make a copy of documents or receive them electronically within two days of their request.
It also would create an accountability portal, which would be called the “Missouri Education Transparency and Accountability Portal.” This would allow the public to access each district’s course materials and textbooks.
“Sen. Andrew Koenig did a tremendous job of bringing all the voices to the table and writing something we think is encompassing of a lot of things we want to get done,” Senate President Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said. “It’s first step but I think it’s a really good step.”
But the piece that caused tensions between the two political parties was around what educators can and can’t teach.
“I think it feels like it’s defunding education in other ways,” Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton said. “Taking away our knowledge base, taking away our teachers.”
The bill says teachers would be prohibited from teaching that “individuals of any race, ethnicity, color or national origin are inherently superior or inferior.”
The language goes on to say educators are banned from teaching curriculum that could make students feel “responsible for actions committed in the past by others.”
Koenig, R-Manchester, was the sponsor of the legislation. He said on the Senate floor Wednesday that this bill should not bar the teaching of history in schools.
“What we’re not saying is little Johnny in the classroom is somewhere inherently racist or responsible for actions from some else, even if it’s in the present,” Koenig said.
Republicans are confident if the legislation is tried in court, it will be upheld.
“I think any language that you pass where you’re defining and kind of guiding the legislation to what’s admissible and what’s not, I think any of its open for lawsuits at any scenario,” Rowden said.
Even though Democrats spent out negotiating, they still aren’t in favor of the bill.
“I actually met with my school district today and they are still very, very concerned about the language and the fear that it places in teachers,” Washington said. “It’s more about being mature enough to understand that at some point you’re fighting a wall and there is some things you’re not going to be able to get out.”
She said a piece Democrats were able to get into the bill involved more funding for school districts for impoverished children. The legislation increases funding to public schools for low-income students and establishes a 15% increase per homeless child in a district.
With the possibility of the Senate debating the topic of transgender athletes in the coming weeks, Democrats said it’s time to focus more on teacher pay raises and childcare instead.
“We’re hopeful that at some point we will come down and do stuff that will really be impactful to the state of Missouri, more so than just a culture war that seems to happen week after week,” Rizzo said.
The bill needs one final vote from the Senate, which could come as early as next week, before it moves to the House.