State Senator Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, wants Dr. Margie Vandeven out as state education commissioner.

In Missouri, curriculum and accompanying instructional practices, materials, and textbooks are decided upon at the local level – not at the state level. But O’Laughlin, the chair of the Missouri Joint Committee on Education, and other conservative lawmakers, want the state to get involved in local school board decisions allowing schools to incorporate concepts of race and racism into their classrooms.

Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin (Photo courtesy of Missouri Senate)

The Springfield News-Leader reports during a community meeting this week in Springfield about critical race theory, O’Laughlin said the governor can get Vandeven fired if there is “immense public pressure”.

Missourinet affiliate KDRO in Sedalia, asked Gov. Mike Parson if he backs Vandeven as commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

“I do. I do. It’s unfortunate the senator would say that when you consider the job that Margie has done since she has been here,” says Parson. “Look, the only way critical race theory can be taught in a school – the only way – is if the locals let it happen. That’s controlled by the local school boards in your hometown. That was done by the legislators, I might add, four or five years ago that put that control in the local level – that’s state law. So, as far as DESE goes and Commissioner Vandeven goes, she doesn’t have the authority to even authorize that criteria in the state of Missouri. DESE doesn’t have the ability to do that. It’s kind of unfortunate that was said but the reality of it is, we’re not teaching that in this state. We’re not going to allow it to be taught in this state. We’re going to fight against schools that do and we are going to call them out if they do that.”

A 2014 law required the creation of a series of workgroups to develop the Missouri Learning Standards. Those standards define the knowledge and skills Missouri students need to be successful in school and beyond. That law also spells out the local control provision.

Most members of the workgroups were appointed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven

Critical Race Theory refers to a 40-year body of academic study that says racism and inequity are embedded in American institutions and legal systems. It is taught largely in higher education, but some opponents of the teaching, especially conservative Republicans, say it is being taught in some Missouri K-12 schools and having a negative impact on students.

The New York Times 1619 Project is a long-form journalism project and corresponding curriculum that says slavery is a central part of American history, starting in 1619.

DESE has surveyed the state’s roughly 550 K-12 school districts and charter schools to see which ones incorporate the concepts of Critical Race Theory into their classrooms.

Of the 425 districts that responded, one said they work with CRT and three said they include the New York Times 1619 Project. Those districts are Kansas City Public Schools, Hazelwood and University City.

The governor nominates Missouri Board of Education members. To serve on the board, the Missouri Senate must formally approve the governor’s nominees.

The way hiring and firing works of the state’s top K-12 education leader is ultimately up to the Missouri Board of Education.

In 2017, former Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, devised a plan to recruit new board members who would agree to fire Vandeven. If they refused to vote against firing Vandeven, he relieved them of their duties.

Greitens pulled this off while the Legislature was out of session – when Senators were not required to approve the governor’s nominees.

After months of hiring and firing, Greitens eventually managed to find enough members to show Vandeven the door.

In June 2018, Greitens resigned as a result of controversy involving his ex-mistress, use of a donor list to bankroll his campaign, and federal campaign donation allegations.

The Senate did not end up confirming his board nominees.

The Missouri Board of Education, with a couple new members appointed by Parson, chose to rehire Vandeven in November 2018.

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