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O’Laughlin calls for new leadership at DESE amid critical race theory probe

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, who chairs the Joint Committee on Education and has been holding meetings around the state on various education issues, is calling for new leadership at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

In particular, O’Laughlin is critical of a recent survey from the education department (DESE) that said only Kansas City Public Schools said it approved curriculum containing so-called critical race theory out of more than 400 local education agencies (LEA) polled. O’Laughlin said the way the two questions were asked on the survey could lead to misleading results. 

“According to evidence local parent groups have given me taken directly from their schools’ curriculum, it is simply not true that only Kansas City is involved in critical race theory,” O’Laughlin said.

During a town hall in Springfield this week, O’Laughlin called for DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven to be replaced, as reported by the Springfield News-Leader. She reiterated her position during an interview Thursday. 

“I believe there needs to be new leadership [at DESE]. We have abysmal reading rates, math rates, and yet we’re spending thousands of dollars on critical race theory trainings,” O’Laughlin told The Missouri Times. “DESE likes to say ‘local control is the primary way we run our school system,’ but local control means no parental input.” 

At the townhall, O’Laughlin called on Gov. Mike Parson to remove Vandeven from her post. It’s up to the Missouri State Board of Education to appoint commissioners. 

Parson, who has maintained critical race theory is not taught in Missouri schools, said Thursday he was “disappointed” in O’Laughlin’s request. 

“It’s disappointing that she would say that. I don’t know what all was said about that, but I guess No. 1, I don’t have the ability to do that to start off with. It’s a little disappointing she wouldn’t know the process,” Parson said. “But No. 2, there’s a commission in place, a board that does that. I think it’s important as we’re talking about critical race theory, the commissioner of education does not have the ability to set the criteria for any school system.” 

While Missouri has certain learning standards in place, guiding expectations for each grade level, it’s up to local districts and schools to come up with curriculum, materials, textbooks, and more. DESE has said it did not keep track of what schools include critical race theory in its curriculum but issued a survey at the request of legislators. 

On that survey, Kansas City Public Schools was the only LEA to respond affirmatively to the survey on a question about teaching critical race theory. Five LEAs left the question blank, and 419 said they did not include it. 

Kansas City 33 explained: “We offer an African Centered College prep magnet school that services both elementary and secondary students. The board also approved the 1619 Project service-learning and community activism grant to be taught during summer school. The curriculum is fully aligned with the Missouri Learning Standards.” 

In addition to Kansas City Public Schools, Hazelwood School District and the School District of University City said they had curriculum covering the controversial New York Times’ 1619 project. For that question, 14 LEAs did not provide an answer, and 408 responded in the negative. 

Hazelwood said the 1619 Project is used as a teacher resource for 4th-grade social studies regarding the arrival of enslaved people in Jamestown. Additionally, two paragraphs regarding the arrival of enslaved African people are given to students in an 8th-grade social studies class. It’s also used in a 9th-grade U.S. history class as a suggested learning activity from when former President Donald Trump discussed it and the 1776 Commission, the district said on its survey. 

University City said the board did not approve the 1619 Project, but one teacher used it as a resource during a “unit of study with students.” 

O’Laughlin said the Governor’s Office had not been provided the information she has garnered from parents and advocacy groups, but she planned to share her findings with the executive branch. 

O’Laughlin also chairs the Senate Education Committee and has served as an administrator at a local Christian school and on her local school board. She’s been holding meetings across the state with stakeholders to discuss a variety of topics around education, from reading and math scores to charter schools.