Opinion: Missouri Legislature’s Unprecedented Public Education Bills
This year’s session of the Missouri legislature was inundated with measures to police what local public schools must and must not do.
This represents an erosion of the reverence I have regularly heard from legislators of both parties about the almost sanctity of local control over education by locally elected school district board members. Beyond this, the Missouri Constitution specifically provides that “supervision of education in public schools shall be vested in a state board of education.”
But this year, more than 90 bills have been introduced that would impose requirements or restrictions on public schools.
Certainly, many of these bills do not directly involve the question of “education”, protected by the Constitution.
Some of these non-educational issues are relatively benign, covering issues of health, safety, school buses, drinking water at school, student health care, and parents’ rights to education. information. Other non-educational bills would ban discrimination based on hairstyle, including braids, provide information about vaping products, and require a suicide hotline phone number on the back of a business card. student.
But there are more controversial bills, including a ban on mask mandates in public schools and advice on sexual diversity. It could be argued that some of these supposedly non-teaching issues could have an impact on “teaching”, for example student counseling and protecting the health of students and teachers in the classroom.
Beyond that, nearly half of these public school requirements specifically involve what teachers must or cannot teach.
One of the most frequent school proposals are Republican bills banning public schools from teaching controversial subjects described as “critical race theory.” These bills would prohibit teaching racial guilt or that someone is inherently racist because of their race.
Some of these bills would specifically prohibit teaching or providing students with materials from The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which chronicles the impact of slavery on United States history.
A bill would even prohibit forcing a teacher to discuss a controversial public policy or social affairs issue in class.
I confess to a personal prejudice on this question. My high school class discussions on public policy issues helped empower me in my career as a journalist.
On the other side are bills that would require specific subjects to be taught in public schools.
These required subjects include Native American history, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the criminal justice system, police interaction, the Holocaust, the civil rights era, computer science, racial incidents in Missouri, and even cursive writing.
Some bills require the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop curricula on various topics for use in public schools, including one on “responsible use of social media” that public schools would be required to to teach.
Aren’t these legislative efforts toying with public school curricula, essentially trying to interfere with the state Board of Education’s constitutional oversight authority over “instruction?”
As an alternative, why not just bring these topics to the state Board of Education rather than involving the highly partisan legislative process?
The council is made up of Republicans and Democrats who must be confirmed by the Missouri Senate.
The current chairman of the board was former top Missouri Senate leader — former Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields. He enjoyed deep respect from Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.
I suspect that the framers of the Missouri Constitution limited educational oversight to the board because of concerns about the obvious danger of elected politicians dictating the curriculum.
The threat is that the compulsory or prohibited subjects of education could reflect popular political objectives or ideological pressures rather than a balanced presentation of the problems and the history of our country, as well as the real educational needs of the pupils.
In an election year, there is a clear incentive to advance politically divisive education issues.
Indeed, there are many more bills dealing with school programs this year than were tabled in the 2021 legislative session, a non-election year. And there are weeks left before the state’s constitutional restriction on lawmakers introducing bills.
But the larger question is why state lawmakers don’t respect the decisions of their locally elected school boards and the bipartisan state Board of Education.
Phill Brooks has been a Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri Statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and Distinguished Faculty Member of the Missouri School of Journalism.