Little Radical School House on the Kansas Prairie

By Liz Rosenberg


Voices (in order of appearance)

LiberlLikeJesus, TikTok account that posted Dr. Liz Meitl’s testimony

Liz Rosenberg (Host)

Kristey Williams, Kansas Republican representative who chairs the Education Budget Committee

Dr. Liz Meitl, interviewee, Kansas public school teacher and parent

Mari-Lynn Poskin, interviewee, Kansas Democratic representative, member of the Education Budget Committee

Brad Boyd, Kansas Democratic representative, member of the Education Budget Committee

Tamara Lawrence, Staff person who works with the Education Budget Committee

Dr. Nishani Frazier, interviewee, associate professor of History and American Studies at the University of Kansas

Kristen Workman, parent who testified in favor of a parents’ rights bill in Kansas

LiberlLikeJesus 00:00:00

Y’all. You have to see what happened in the K-12 education budget committee today. This lady came to roast somebody called the Burn Unit.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:00:10

Dr. Liz Meitl is the Lady TikToker liberal like Jesus is referring to. Meitl stepped up to a podium in a packed conference room in the Kansas State Capitol in early February, and delivered testimony that has garnered nearly 2 million views and close to 200,000 likes on TikTok and Twitter.

Kristey Williams 00:00:29

I’d like to go ahead and open the house. Uh, the hearing for House Bill 2218…

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:00:33

House bill 2218 would distribute about $5,000 to middle and lower income students who opt out of public schools. The money can be used for schooling in a variety of settings, accredited or non-accredited private schools, religious schools, online or in person materials for homeschools or even educational trips to pay for vouchers. The state will pull from public school funds. Districts stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars paying for students who never even attended public schools, and a loss of even a handful of their current students could mean a very big hit to their budget.

Kristey Williams 00:01:07

Liz Meetl, Meitl, private citizen.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:01:14

Meitl could use her time to refute testimony submitted by voucher bill proponents like Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by staunchly conservative and libertarian brothers, Charles and David Koch.

Liz Meitl 00:01:25 (testimony)

Thank you for having me committee. My name is Dr. Liz Meitl. I’m a public school teacher and the parent of two children in Kansas Public Schools. The original testimony that I submitted was in opposition to this bill, but after discussions with my colleagues and some reflection, I’ve changed my mind and I’d like to speak to the change of heart.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:01:45

Meitl’s opposition testimony would likely have been a recitation of the risks baked into voucher programs and research that shows they can harm students. Her past op-eds explore this terrain. Standing at the podium, Meitl used a totally different tactic – satire. Or as one Twitter account put it, reverse psychology. The official meeting notes from the hearing read: Liz Meitl private citizen was now a proponent of HB 2218 due to the fact that she would be able to promote critical race theory, socialism and atheism.

Liz Meitl 00:02:18 (testiomony)

Many of us educators are, as some of you on this committee, have implied in the past, atheist socialist with radical political agendas who believe that critical race theory is the pinnacle of curricular knowledge. We are currently hamstrung by administrative oversight and pedagogical research, but if this legislation frees us, we can set up shop in our own homes, promote whatever agendas we’d like.

One teacher would only need to recruit 21 students. To make a hundred thousand dollars a year, which is substantially more than I make now.

We can promote our leftist agendas to our targeted students. Without any administrative oversight and without any fear of people changing our curriculum or banning our books, we could cultivate radicals in a way we would never be allowed to in our current settings, and I am here for it.

I hope you pass this legislation and I look forward to being one of the first people in line. To register to set up my own individual school. Thank you so much.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:03:19

Meitl’s testimony made it into my Twitter feed a few days after she delivered it. I laughed at her sendup of the culture wars. The context drew me further in because I grew up in Kansas and graduated from a public high school. New York City where I live has yet to waid into vouchers legislatively. But nearby Connecticut and New Jersey are wrestling with voucher bills as are more than 130 localities across the United States, according to a pro-public schools campaign started by the Southern Poverty Law Center. To better understand the Kansas bill I reached out to Democratic Representative Mari-Lynn Poskin and Republican representative Kristey Williams. Williams chairs the Education Budget Committee and introduced this year’s voucher bill. She did not, however, reply to my messages. Poskin is a member of the committee and is well versed in the bill. We spoke in early April.

Mari-Lynn Poskin 00:04:07

Anything you wanna call a lesson is now a lesson you can order flat earth, um, science curriculum off of Etsy so there is no accountability to taxpayers and we will lose children.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:04:20

Earlier in the same hearing where Meitl testified, Democratic representative Brad Boyd asked Tamara Lawrence, the bill’s reviser, a question about the types of curriculum that would be allowable if the bill were to pass.

Brad Boyd 00:04:32

On page eight, section seven in line 18. It speaks to the content or religious nature of a product or service, um, may not be considered when determining whether a payment for such product or service is, is an allowable expender for a foreign account. Am I to interpret that to mean that. Someone who, who’s teaching anti-Semitic, racist, or Nazi materials that couldn’t be factored into that decision.

Tamara Lawrence 00:04:57

If the materials are in some, in some way meet the requirements of an authorized expenditure, then the content or religious nature of that product would not be allowed to be considered.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:05:09

A few days after the hearing, Williams defended this aspect of the bill in an interview on the NPR program 1A, where she spoke with journalist Jen White.

Kristey Williams 00:05:18

There’s a difference between parental speech and state speech that what you’re speaking of is abhorrent and you and I would not approve of that. It is incumbent upon all of us in this free society to overcome that speech with even better speech.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:05:35

Poskin and I also discussed an event in mid-March where folks in Augusta, Kansas gathered in a school auditorium to question Williams about the bill.

Mari-Lynn Poskin 00:05:42

She said there’s a God size hole in people’s hearts. And you know, really made it quite clear that this was more about getting people into private religious schools in places where Jesus would be in the driver’s seat, if you will, of their education and their upbringing. Then I think just as important, which maybe a lot of people missed is when she’s, they talked about the safety of students in a micro school or a place where there’s no reporters and no, you know, she’s like, well, I don’t think those are the parents that are gonna take advantage of school choice. Basically saying, it’s only, it’s the good parents. Who are gonna take advantage of the school choice. So it feeds more so into the narrative that this is really for a certain set of people to get their private school paid for.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:06:28

About 10 days into this viral moment, I left Brooklyn and flew to meet Meitl in a Kansas City suburb where she lives with her husband, two children and two adorable dogs that kept wanting to be part of our conversation.

Liz Meitl 00:06:42 (testimony)

We are exhausted.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:06:45

I suspected that this line and maybe some others weren’t satire, and I wanted to hear more about what led up to her testimony.

Liz Meitl 00:06:52

Critical race theory is this huge right wing talking point, and they act as if teaching critical race theory would be the worst thing in the world. There’s nothing wrong with critical race theory, and the minute we started getting accused of teaching critical race theory, the right response would’ve been like, We don’t, but we could. We should. It’s the right thing to do. We should teach queer theory. We should teach feminist theory. We should teach it all because then everybody has all these perspectives and then they get to choose the way that works for them to view the world. And instead the, the default position was like, we can’t teach, we don’t teach that.

I hate this apologist default that we go into. Because we have nothing to apologize for. All of that is to say just this once, I was like, they’re not listening to us. Anyway, we’re gonna get up there and give our testimony. We’ve done it a hundred times before. We know it doesn’t change anything. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

But just this once, I’m gonna say the thing I most wanna say. I’m gonna say the thing that is as snarky as I wanna be. Just this once. And it turns out people think that’s fun.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:08:06

According to the most recent Pew religious landscape study, about 20% of Kansans are not affiliated with any religion. Fewer than 5% identify as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or other, and 76% are Christian.

Liz Meitl 00:08:20

If you want to use my tax dollars to support your faith, your religious schooling, then you are forcing me to necessarily be a part of your church. It is fundamentally against what this country should be. We are not supposed to force anybody to do anything religious ever, ever like that is so foundational to our country.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:08:43

Many Kansans are proud of their four bearers. The Browns who sued the Board of Education and ended on paper segregated schools across the country and the famous abolitionist John Brown. But the voucher bills introduced every year since 2014, signal a return to Kansas’ segregationist past.

(Sound of a telephone ring…)

Nishani Frazier 00:09:05

You’ve reached Nishani Frazier.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:09:07

Dr. Nishani Frazier is an associate professor of History and American Studies at the University of Kansas. She recently started writing and publishing op-eds about legislative policies. Frazier can’t see vouchers in the present and not think about vouchers of the past.

Nishani Frazier 00:09:22

Coming out of, uh, the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, a number of states tried to come up with ways to circumvent the Supreme Court decision. Some just refused outright to obey. So you take the state, Virginian, they just shut down the schools for two years. Like none of you people go to school. And of course I say, none of you people to mean that none of you black people go to school because they found a way around for, uh, white, uh, students to attend, usually kind of private schools or parallel schools.

What are the function of those schools? Those schools are, uh, literally designed to operate. As a workaround. So this is not a new phenomenon. It’s not something that just sort of has popped up. Um, uh, Christian schools, religious schools have been a tool over and over and over again for white citizens who are wishing to avoid certain kinds of things.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:10:21

Comparing this year to last year, the voucher bill got a lot closer to the governor’s desk. It didn’t get out of committee in 2022, but it made it through the house all the way to a vote on the Senate floor. This session, it failed with a 17 to 20 margin. There was, however, another education related bill that did make it to the governor’s desk. A parent’s rights bill, that is very much about avoiding certain kinds of things. Pen America calls bills like these educational gag orders, over 300 bills similar to Florida’s “Don’t say Gay Bill” have been introduced in the past two years, and 20 were passed into law.

Kristen Workman 00:10:57

I’d like to preface my remarks by thanking sincerely, thanking the honest, tireless, and caring teachers and administrators who keep politics, sex, and revisionist history out of our children’s classrooms. It’s difficult to summarize my experience trying to insulate my oldest daughter from English assignments that were sexually explicit, violent, full of vulgar profanity and slurs, moral relativism, gender-based identity politics, Marxism propaganda and unabashed critical race theory.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:11:27

That was Kristen Workman testifying before the Kansas House Education Committee. Dr. Frazier is a parent too, and she said if her child is being taught something that’s factually inaccurate, she’d want to know about it. But from her perspective, this bill is about something else.

Nishani Frazier 00:11:43

I don’t know that schools have ever operated deny any parent access to understanding their child’s education. So the que real question is, what is your intent and what is your purpose? And if your intent and your purpose is to control the information that your child gets, quite frankly, that’s false. They won’t be able to do that. And in fact, you end up hobbling your child. They’re less prepared to deal with a diverse world, which only is increasing given demographic changes. They’re unable to think through ideas and concepts they get to my class. They don’t know what to do with some of these things. And sometimes they’re often traumatized cuz they’ve never heard these things. So you’re not really improving the lives of your child by trying to block them from. Certain kinds of things and you’re not improving America by pretending that something ain’t true you, you’re actually doing a greater harm.

Liz Rosenberg [Narration] 00:12:37

The parents’ rights bill Workman supports passed with a 23 to 17 margin in the Senate. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly vetoed the bill. Both bills are likely to return again next year, but they might meet more opposition because of Frazier’s op-eds and Meitl’s viral testimony.