Faith leaders and educators urge lawmakers to reject bills undermining Kansas schools

TOPEKA — A coalition of Kansas religious leaders and education advocates is calling on lawmakers to reject legislation being drafted to ban or restrict the teaching of the racial history of the United States.

More than 50 people gathered on the first floor of the Topeka Capitol on Tuesday to rally against what they saw as a concerted effort to dismantle diversity and inclusion initiatives in Kansas public schools. One such measure would establish a Parental Bill of Rights, creating a series of transparency checks to ensure parents are aware of all material made available at school.

House Bill 2662 also undermines the affirmative defense of schools and educators if someone accuses them of promoting material harmful to minors. The K-12 House Education Budget Committee is set for a hearing on the measure on Wednesday.

“This conversation about race or critical theory, whatever the right-wing is called, is being used as an excuse to undermine support for public schools,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action. “We need to reach out to kids from different backgrounds, bring them into the conversation, and center the experience of people who aren’t often centered in our history books.”

A handful of religious leaders, equal rights advocates and teachers joined Rieber to outline their views on the Kansas Legislature’s approach to education. The consensus was that reckless laws put teachers in the crosshairs of angry parents and push some completely off the field.

Across the country, a discussion around critical race theory – an academic framework analyzing the role of systemic racism in American society – has led to the passage of laws against its inclusion in the curriculum, which, according to the advocates, is a thinly veiled attack on all diversity policies. Members of the state board of education and local school boards said critical race theory is not part of any Kansas curriculum.

About 50 people have rallied to oppose legislation that opponents say will undermine the authority of teachers and school boards to properly educate Kansas students. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Chloe Chaffin, a student at Washburn University studying secondary education in English, said she always wanted to be a teacher. Stories of harassment over curriculum choices are the only thing holding her back, and other aspiring young teachers she’s engaged with often feel the same way, she said.

“When I talk to my teachers and students about my program, I often hear that our class sizes in the education program are getting smaller and smaller, that they are not able to convince enough ‘students to enter the profession, and I believe bills like those running through the Legislative Assembly are a reason why,’ Chaffin said.

Michael Rebne, a public school teacher and Roeland Park City Council member, said some building lawmakers were trying to vilify the teaching profession and that such efforts would hinder students’ chances of having an equitable future.

“We need to help our students reach out to the children of this country to understand why it’s so important to keep fighting for democracy and freedom,” Rebne said. “We are here to tell the right-wing lawmakers inside this building that we will not bring their ignorance, racism and fear into our schools.”

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