Missouri lawmakers scrutinize school boards, local control for next session

FILE - In this May 14, 2021 file photo, the Missouri House of Representatives finishes the final hours of the year's legislative session at the Capitol building in Jefferson City, Mo. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP).
FILE - In this May 14, 2021 file photo, the Missouri House of Representatives finishes the final hours of the year's legislative session at the Capitol building in Jefferson City, Mo. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP).

Amid masking debates and curriculum controversy, Missouri lawmakers are putting a watchful eye on local school boards.

In discussing the state of history education and the role of school boards in engaging with communities in the Joint Committee on Education hearing Tuesday, attention often returned to familiar themes surrounding masks in public schools and critical race theory.

Tuesday's hearing was split by subject as representatives from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, College of the Ozarks and Hillsdale College spoke on the topic of history curriculum and representatives from the Missouri School Board Association provided testimony in regards to school boards.

Discussions on COVID-19 and critical race theory were present in both halves.

Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, said recent focus on school boards has largely stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic and abrupt shifts to normal educational processes.

She said differences in approach, not who sits on the school board, have torn apart once tight-knit communities.

"You're correct on that," said Janet Tilley, senior director of board training at MSBA. "If we want to talk about things that come up in public comment, it would be masks, it would be CRT and it would be the banning of certain books."

MSBA is an association representing school boards across the state. It provides training to elected school board members, among other duties.

Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, said he doesn't think the pandemic is the sole cause, but agreed Missourians are re-engaging the ways they interact with and look to local school boards.

Richey, chairman of the joint committee, said school boards need to be more accessible to the public and should be responding when parents raise concerns or ask questions about topics not on meeting agendas.

"School boards right now are looking like they are absolutely unengaged," Richey said.

He said it appears many school boards have shifted to work on behalf of school districts, as opposed to the communities they represent.

Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, held a similar sentiment, noting taxpayers fund public education.

"I think people just want to be heard," she said.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, said as local government entities, school boards are subject to regulations about what constitutes a meeting and how information is required to be dispersed.

Those regulations can make issue-centered conversations with constituents more complicated, she said, because school board members need to ensure the entire community is involved in the conversation and can provide input.

Burnett suggested a solution might involve creating goals or benchmarks for communicating changes more effectively with parents.

Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, said there will be legislation regarding school boards introduced this session.

In the same hearing Tuesday, lawmakers took up the issue of history education in Missouri.

Missouri has one graduation requirement related to history, which is that students pass an American History II course. The content of that course spans the post-Civil War Reconstruction Period to present day.

The state has two additional social studies requirements, but neither are history-specific and the state's other history requirements are completed before high school.

Missouri's 635 learning standards were developed in 2016 by working groups appointed by the Legislature. They broadly describe the state's minimum goals for learning in each subject, which school districts can then flesh out and expand on at the local level.

While the state sets graduation requirements and curriculum standards, Dixie Grupe, director of social studies with DESE, said it is up to local school boards to create subject curriculum and decide how it is implemented.

Grupe said she believes Missouri's learning standards are rigorous and provide educators many opportunities to engage various topics and discussions within the classroom.

Richey said he has many issues with the state's history learning standards, like how they are arranged thematically instead of chronologically, and there are no requirements for revisiting history subjects taught in elementary or middle school.

When talking about history curriculum, representatives also worked to understand what critical race theory is and how it differs from overarching critical theory, as well as whether they are appropriate for primary education.

Richey said legislators are looking at public education curriculum and requirements on a statewide level. Several committee members brought up the idea of reconvening working groups to start the process of setting new learning standards for the state.