Last week, the Kansas House rejected a bill to encourage and enhance ethnic studies in Kansas public schools. On the surface of it, this would seem just more of the same reactionary, fundamentalist conservatism we see every day in our legislative leadership. But below the surface, there was more going on.
HB 2207, a bill to encourage the study of ethnic cultures in Kansas public schools, was introduced to the House Committee on Education by John Alcala (D) of Topeka. In its original form, it asked merely that curriculum and resources be created or acquired to teach about the various ethnicities and cultures that make up the United States and Kansas. These included, but were not limited to, African-American, Asian American, Latino, Hispanic, Native American, "and other racialized peoples." There were several people that spoke to the merits of the bill, and none who opposed it.
A good, honest bill.
But in committee, some changes were made by the leadership, changing the bill into one that did almost the opposite. Two particular changes were made. One changed the inclusive language "but is not limited to" into the exclusionary "and is limited to," thus cutting out any but the listed ethnicities. It was noted that this would limit studies of Islamic culture.
The second change added that textbooks and materials acquired to support ethnic studies should "not include social justice remedies." This is a particular catchphrase of the most fundamentalist conservatives, one that rails against the minority for any adjustments the white "majority" is required to make. But the Civil Rights Movement was a social justice remedy. As was the life of Mahatma Ghandi. The US Constitution was a social justice remedy. So, too, the Emancipation Proclamation.
So, though it began life as an exemplary and non-divisive bill, HB 2207 was turned into a poster child for fear of the other. And yet, the bill passed out of committee, destined for the House floor, on a unanimous vote. When asked, the moderates on the Committee from both parties said it needed to be heard more widely. Perhaps it would be amended to a better state, or serve as an example of extremist leanings.
But HB 2207 was relegated "below the line" for discussion, meaning it would not be brought up. Rep. Alcala had other ideas. When another bill came up for discussion, HB 2532 suggesting "financial literacy" be added to the standards of a Kansas education, Rep. Alcala stood up and asked for an amendment. He proferred the content of HB 2207, as amended but without the "social justice" element, be added to the financial literacy bill. After some discussion, the newly amended bill was passed for first consideration with flying colors, his amendment accepted 70-51.
But the next day, when it came up for final action, the tables turned again. On the first count, the bill flew through, 87-37. But Kansas Legislators are given the chance to "explain their vote," and also to change that vote. Rep. Don Hineman (R), a moderate, stood to speak, and said he did not support the bill, because it usurped the powers of the State Board of Education to set curriculum. And then, one after another, legislators raised their hands to change their votes. In a stunning reversal, the bill ultimately failed 43-81. In total, 44 votes were changed.
HB 2207, amended, passed, ignored, tacked on, championed and lauded, and then abandoned, finally lay it's head down, defeated.
What had happened? In all honesty, it seems confusing, but in the aftermath, some comments were made that began to make sense of the actions of moderates in the House, who initially supported, then defeated the bill.
HB 2207, as introduced, was an excellent bill. But it was amended and lost, and became, instead, a symbol for another fight. Waiting in the wings yet this legislative session is HB 2292, a bill which seeks to cancel the Kansas College and Career Ready Academic Standards, known also as Common Core. The anti-Common Core sentiment runs deep among the most radical of the conservatives, though the reasons remain unclear. But one thing HB 2292 does, if any does, is usurp the curriculum-setting powers given to the State Board of Education by the Kansas Constitution.
HB 2207, crippled by the conservatives and doomed for failure as a result, serves instead as test for those who would try to impose their outrage (at education, Obama, achievement, success?) on the Kansas public school system, eliminating standards, testing, and training that has gone on for years now. HB 2207, or rather, the recorded votes on HB 2207, stand now as a bulwark protecting our schools.
And this is how politics is done. It can be maddening, curious, insightful and frightening.
Here lies HB 2207, long may it live.