Federal lawmakers and the Biden administration are aiming to direct civics curriculum in public schools, and critics fear their efforts will incentivize Kansas schools to promote critical race theory in classrooms. Members of Congress announced legislation to appropriate $1 billion to states for civics education. Meanwhile, Biden’s Department of Education proposed a rule prioritizing federal grants to schools that use programs like the New York Times’ 1619 Project and Ibraham X. Kendi’s book, “How To Be Antiracist,” in their civics curricula.

The book and the 1619 Project teach critical race theory as part of civics education. The New York Times says its 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country’s history” with the theory promoting the idea that racism is part of the fabric of American society.  CRT attests that systems like the American justice system and its education systems are designed to help whites maintain privilege and status.

President Trump issued an Executive Memo last September banning all training of employees in “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” “or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita

Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican, calls critical race theory an ideological weapon “that plants seeds of polluted truth.”

“The divisive concepts of the Left’s 1619 Project, critical theory, and all its components such as critical race theory and others, are a clear and present danger to America, because they seek to undermine our understanding of the individual, destroy individual responsibility, and leave us at each others’ throats for the crime of simply existing or being born as God created us,” he said.

Several states debated banning teaching the theory in public school classrooms. The Oklahoma Senate adopted a ban earlier this year, and Idaho lawmakers forwarded a ban to the Governor’s desk this week.

Kansas lawmakers did not debate critical race theory in the legislature this year, though they did discuss civics education. However, the discussion centered around legislation to require high school seniors to pass a citizenship test in order to graduate. 

Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood

Sen. Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican, carried the legislation in the Kansas Senate.

“I think to have engaged citizens, they have to understand how our government is structured and how it works,” she said. “Otherwise, that creates problems in all areas. Kids today are not receiving the same kind of education that our previous generations did when it comes to government.”

Bipartisan, but short of veto-proof majorities in both chambers, adopted the proposal. Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the measure last week. 

KSDE mum on race, gender issues on the state assessment

The Kansas State Board of Education lists civics education as a priority in its vision for successful students, but its Kansans Can Vision plan doesn’t promote specific civics instruction.  Interestingly, academic improvement is not among the Outcomes to be Measured, but social justice is first on the list.

Two state school board members provided lawmakers written testimony opposing the proposal to require graduating seniors to pass a citizenship test. They argued the curriculum authority belongs to the state board and local school boards.

The Sentinel last week asked the Kansas State Department of Education whether state assessment tests reference social justice, racism, critical race theory, wokeism, or gender issues. There was no response by press time.

Regardless, Penn says, critical race theory has no place in public schools.

“CRT’s parent philosophy, Critical Theory, is not in keeping with any shared values, accepted virtues, or national vision I spent over 20 years in the Army defending,” Penn says. “Such racial poison–and its derivative philosophies, like Critical Race Theory, do not even remotely represent any American ideals we esteem. Its tenets are not helpful in the upbringing of our children, the welfare of our private citizens, the training of our public servants, or the strength of the U.S., Kansas, or Wichita.”

The broader debate about critical race theory could find fertile ground in local districts. Some, like the Lawrence School District, provide critical race training to school board members and school staff. The district annually pays a consulting firm to conduct the training. Meanwhile, Kansas universities pledge to implement student life policies for racial healing and transformation. 

Federal lawmakers, the Biden administration, state lawmakers, and the state board of education provide recommendations for curriculum. However, at least for now in Kansas, local boards make the final determination.   KSDE is on record saying local districts can opt out of Common Core whenever they wish, for example.

Dr. Christine White

Dr. Christine White plans to run for school board in the Blue Valley School District. She said critical race theory has no place in that district, one of the largest in the state.

“Twenty-one percent of Blue Valley students are below grade level in reading and math, and a full 50% of sophomores are not on track for success in college or career with respect to reading and math,” she said. “Blue Valley should be focusing its time, money, and effort on teaching core subjects, not on unproven ideologies.”

As the debate on civics education heats up, Penn says he intends to tell the truth about the negative purpose of critical race theory.

“I look forward to exposing the detrimental aims of any curriculum, training, or instruction based upon or influenced by these divisive concepts,” he said. “This thing is rotten from its root to its fruit.”

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