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Debate over racial equity curriculum reaches Missouri statehouse, Webster Groves schools

Debate over racial equity curriculum reaches Missouri statehouse, Webster Groves schools

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Lesson plans that focus on racial equity and social justice would be banned under an amendment debated Wednesday in the Missouri House.

The amendment echoes pending bills in several states that would prohibit public schools from using The New York Times’ 1619 Project or other curriculum that “identifies people, entities, or institutions as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.”

The 1619 Project commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to the colonies and argues that Black people are the foundation of American democracy.

A majority of the nearly 600 public comments sent to legislators support a ban on the 1619 Project, saying it brings leftist politics into the classroom and divides students along racial lines.

“I don’t think we should be emphasizing skin color when we’re talking to our kids. You can be left with the conclusion that people are put into dominant or subordinate groups. We should be talking about kindness,” said Katie Rash of St. Peters, a state coordinator for the group No Left Turn in Education.

The underlying bill on state scholarships was tabled when debate stalled on the House floor over the amendment on social justice curriculum.

Opponents of the amendment say it is trying to preserve a whitewashed version of American history by downplaying the impact of slavery.

The push for a ban on social justice lessons is “shortsighted and political in nature,” said LaGarrett King, an associate professor and director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri.

“The 1619 Project is just another resource. It presents history from different perspectives, from Black perspectives,” he said. “When we think about social studies education, it’s teaching students who is human and how to treat people humanely. It’s not trying to make kids patriotic or make kids hate America, it’s to help kids see their humanity.”

King consulted on a new social studies curriculum to be voted on Thursday by the Webster Groves School Board.

One of the goals was “to design an inclusive and relevant social studies curriculum with an emphasis on equity and social justice,” according to a presentation to the board from Webster Groves teachers and staff.

Last year, the district redrew its attendance boundaries to alleviate crowding in elementary schools but also created higher levels of racial segregation. When the plan is fully implemented, some schools could have a Black student population under 5% compared with an estimated 30% of students at Givens Elementary on north Rock Hill Road. Black students make up 12% of the district’s total enrollment of 4,500.

A survey on the redistricting plan exposed racist opinions among some parents who threatened to send their children to private schools or move away if they were rezoned to the Givens attendance area.

The redistricting process, along with protests last summer surrounding George Floyd’s death by a Minneapolis police officer, spurred the district to update its social studies curriculum.

The curriculum includes standards from Learning for Justice, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Several comments from community members on a survey about the new curriculum took issue with the legal advocacy group, including one that said it is “designed to push an agenda and indoctrinate students.”

Webster Groves parent, alumni and school board member Kita Quinn said the updated curriculum “is trying to give our students more of a multicultural lens, just to be more inclusive and hopefully teach them how to be able to look at things from more than one point of view. Presenting history from all sides is fair.”

The national organization Parents Defending Education, which is leading the backlash against diversity and equity initiatives in schools, filed a federal civil rights complaint last month against the Webster Groves district.

The complaint cites a June 2020 blog post from Superintendent John Simpson that said the country’s education and criminal justice systems “clearly privilege one race over another” and called for “the dismantling of the inequitable systems and structures within our district.”

The complaint states that “such an admission from a district superintendent raises concerns that the Webster Groves School District has received federal funds in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” regarding racial discrimination.

“If a school official says the district is racist, I will take you at your word,” said Nicole Neily, the group’s president. “If children are being treated differently on the basis of skin color, that’s unconstitutional.”

Neily said the group is focused on keeping political viewpoints out of classrooms, and invites parents to submit incident reports for its “indoctrination map.”

“Watching kids be told to see race runs counter to how a lot of us grew up, and now we have teachers and schools and classes telling people to judge people by the color of their skin,” Neily said. “I am half-Japanese, I’m all in favor of diversity … it’s that pitting people against each other, teaching people that they’re in camps of oppressor and oppressed.”

The legislation is amendment 23 to House Bill 1141.

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