Politics & Government

Kansas House rejects bill that would develop ethnic studies classes

Kansas Statehouse (Jan. 22, 2014)
Kansas Statehouse (Jan. 22, 2014) File photo

The Kansas House reversed course Monday and rejected a bill that would have required the state to develop curriculum for ethnic studies classes.

Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, amended HB 2532 to require the Board of Education to develop standards and curriculum guidelines for ethnic studies courses for grades seven through 12. The amendment passed 70-51.

Teaching those courses would be optional for local districts, but the guidelines would be consistent statewide, Alcala said.

The overall bill, which required teaching financial literacy at every accredited school, looked as if it had an initial count of 87-37 in favor. But before votes were locked in, more than 40 Republicans changed their votes. The bill was defeated 43-81.

“Everybody was saying good job on getting the amendment on, but I told them the dance wasn’t over yet,” Alcala said after the vote.

Alcala, who is Latino, said ethnic studies courses help engage students of color and broaden all students’ understanding of U.S. history.

He said he thought the ethnic studies amendment was the reason for the overall bill’s defeat, but also said he could only speculate on that. “We talk about diversity. We talk about how we want our kids to have all the tools for higher ed,” he said. “And yet we don’t mean it.”

Other lawmakers said their decisions to change votes had nothing to do with the ethnic studies portion. Instead, they said, they were swayed by a speech by Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton.

Hineman said he was voting against the overall bill because it “usurps the power of the State Board of Education.”

Seconds after Hineman finished his speech, lawmakers who had initially voted to support the bill began changing their votes.

“I think he made a very valid point that this is about us staying out of the Department of Education’s business,” said Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, one of the lawmakers to change his vote. “I think a lot of people are concerned about the Common Core bill that’s coming up and that’s kind of the same issue.”

Another House bill would require the state to shed the national Common Core standards and require districts to begin developing new standards for math, reading and science. The legislation has sparked a backlash from the education community.

For his part, Hineman was skeptical that his speech prompted the mass reversal of votes.

“There may have been other politics involved,” he said. “I’ll let you folks speculate. … You would have to ask the folks who switched from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ why they were motivated to do that. I really can’t say.”

Hineman said he supports ethnic studies but that he had problems with the overall bill that would have made changes to the accreditation process for schools.

Alcala said Hineman’s speech gave opponents of ethnic studies an excuse to vote against the overall bill.

The amendment had sparked a heated debate on the floor.

Rep. John Bradford, R- Lansing, who carried the financial literacy bill, said the amendment was discriminatory because it defined ethnic studies as being “limited to the experiences of African-Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Latinos and Native Americans.”

Bradford voted against the overall bill in the end.

Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, who is white, said he has two African-American grandchildren. He said his grandchildren do not live in Kansas, but if they did he would want them to learn about their cultural heritage. He voted in favor of the underlying bill and did not change his vote.

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, the House Education chair, called the decision to bring the amendment inappropriate because his committee recently advanced another ethnic studies bill.

Democrats said there was no guarantee the other ethnic studies bill would come to the floor before Tuesday, the deadline for bills to pass their house of origin.

That bill has generated controversy because it was amended by the committee last week to require that curriculum materials for ethnic studies classes “do not include social justice remedies.”

Alcala’s amendment dropped that provision.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

How they voted

Here’s how south-central Kansas lawmakers voted on HB 2532, which failed 43-81.

Democrats: All area Democrats voted yes.

Republicans: Most area Republicans voted no. These voted yes: Steve Anthimides and Gene Suellentrop, Wichita; Pete DeGraaf, Mulvane; and Don Schroeder, Hesston.