Republican nominee for Missouri auditor wants to investigate schools, ‘Critical Race Theory’

Facebook/Scott Fitzpatrick

Republican Scott Fitzpatrick has vowed to audit Missouri school districts if elected as the state’s next auditor.

Previous auditors have audited schools to ensure against the waste of taxpayer money, but Fitzpatrick promises to go a step further if he prevails over Democrat Alan Green in the Nov. 8 election.

Fitzpatrick, currently the state’s treasurer, has pledged to use his power as auditor to audit school curriculum and has touted a plan to eradicate certain subject material from school districts.

“I’ll ensure schools are following the law and keeping politically divisive curriculum like Critical Race Theory, and discussions relating to gender or sexual preferences out of the classroom,” Fitzpatrick wrote on his campaign website.

His promise on schools echoes hard-right conservative rhetoric surrounding “Critical Race Theory,” a college-level academic concept that examines the role of institutions in perpetuating racism. The academic theory is not widely taught in Missouri’s K-12 schools, but the phrase has become a shorthand among conservatives for any lesson that delves into systemic racism’s role in U.S. history or politics.

Fitzpatrick’s plan to audit curriculum would represent a significant shift in the duties of state auditor. The position has historically been in charge of looking for waste, fraud and financial accountability in state agencies.

For example, current Auditor Nicole Galloway, Missouri’s lone Democratic statewide officeholder who is not seeking reelection, has issued 23 audit reports related to public school districts and charter schools since taking over the office in 2015. But Galloway has never audited a school over its curriculum, her office told The Star.

Some state legislators, lawyers and public school advocates worry that Fitzpatrick will use the auditor’s office — and school districts — to promote partisan politics.

They say his campaign rhetoric foreshadows a politician who will overstep his position in order to appeal to the conservative base. Some say they’ve already seen rumblings of that during Fitzpatrick’s tenure as treasurer.

State Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat, said Fitzpatrick’s plan would be “an absolute abuse of power.”

“Audits for accountability and transparency are one thing, but the last thing our schools should be having to deal with right now is more political harassment from GOP statewide politicians,” he said. “They’ve got enough on their plates with underpaid teachers, staffing shortages and trying to help our kids get caught up after the last few difficult years — especially over curriculum and local issues that are none of the auditor’s business.”

Fitzpatrick, for his part, has vowed not to use the office in a partisan manner if elected.

“When you look at my record in the legislature and as treasurer, I have challenged policies and positions of Republicans and Democrats,” he said in a phone interview with The Star. “I’m equal opportunity when it comes to holding people accountable.”

Green, Fitzpatrick’s Democratic opponent and a former state lawmaker, said in an interview with The Star that he hasn’t even considered auditing school districts over curriculum.

“The auditor sets no policy,” he said. “So we’re talking about trying to change curriculum and put that iron thumb down there that’s trying to change curriculum, change people’s minds — the auditor doesn’t do any of that kind of stuff.”

Fitzpatrick said that if the legislature passes a law that bans certain curriculum, like Critical Race Theory, it would likely give him statutory authority to make sure schools are compliant with state law. Until then, he said, he would be able to audit schools for informational purposes if parents complain.

“One of the jobs of the auditor is to look at money spent and, if money’s being wasted, to highlight that,” he said. “From my perspective, that type of curriculum is a waste of taxpayer money.”

Supporters point to Fitzpatrick’s financial chops

Some supporters of Fitzpatrick point to his time in the state legislature — where he served as House Budget Chair in 2017 and 2018 — and his current role of treasurer as indicators of his financial expertise and willingness to work across the aisle.

They say auditing schools over curriculum could be an avenue for the auditor to provide insight into the health of the state’s school districts and make recommendations.

“Maybe he’ll propose some changes to statute, but for parents that are worried about this — just knowing that it’s happening might be something that is valuable to citizens,” said James Harris, a Jefferson City-based GOP lobbyist. “To know, is this occurring in my district or not?”

Harris was adamant that Fitzpatrick’s campaign promise was not just election-season rhetoric to appeal to conservative voters.

Fitzpatrick supporters say that while they have questions about whether the auditor would be able to actually enforce any changes to curriculum, they support his message and campaign.

State Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican and certified public accountant, said that because teachings such as Critical Race Theory are not currently illegal, a curriculum audit would solely inform citizens whether a school is teaching it. Hoskins, however, said he plans to file legislation next year that would outlaw the concept.

“Scott’s definitely a go-getter and he’s very knowledgeable about the taxpayer dollars that come into the state and where those go,” he said. “I believe that Scott will make an excellent auditor.”

Heather Fleming, founder of Missouri Equity Education Partnership, a coalition of groups that has pushed back against the GOP-dominated legislature’s attempts to oversee school curriculum, said Republican lawmakers’ focus on Critical Race Theory is a “wedge issue” designed to instill fear in conservative voters.

But, she said, Fitzpatrick’s plan to audit curriculum would have an adverse impact on schools.

“What this will look like is further damage to our schools and we might see larger numbers of teachers leaving if they are only allowed to teach from a propagandist perspective of history instead of teaching real history,” she said. “So there’s just a lot that we have at stake and these individuals are running on platforms that would put our schools at further risk. We can’t allow that and we will continue to fight against that.”

Will Fitzpatrick politicize the office?

Fitzpatrick has made school district oversight one of his top priorities throughout his campaign. During a candidate forum in Lake Ozark last month and on his campaign website, the Republican treasurer said he is concerned about the large percentage of Missouri students who test below proficient or advanced in math and science.

He has promised to review school costs and compare the performance of Missouri’s schools with the amount of taxpayer money allocated to those schools. Prior to the Aug. 2 primary, Fitzpatrick told The Star that he thinks he would have the power to make sure school curriculum is not “racially-charged” — another reference to critical race theory.

“I think the auditor has a role to play to make sure that kids aren’t being indoctrinated with the curriculum that they’re being taught,” he said at the time.

State auditors have the authority to conduct financial and performance audits of school districts under Missouri law. Typically, those audits are related to a school’s compliance with state law or financial record-keeping. For example, Galloway completed an audit of the Smithfield School District earlier this month and recommended the school improve its accounting controls and oversight.

“The auditor’s constitutionally assigned job is to audit the finances of state agencies, state officials and, where appropriate, political subdivisions,” said Jim Layton, a former Missouri solicitor general under Democratic Attorneys General Jay Nixon and Chris Koster. “When they go beyond that to start addressing curriculum, that seems well outside the realm of what’s appropriate for a state auditor to be doing.”

Merideth, the St. Louis Democrat, said Fitzpatrick was detail-oriented and hard-working when they worked together in the legislature. But he said he’s seen the Republican treasurer shift to become more politically-driven.

“What I don’t want to start seeing is an auditor that uses their audits as a political weapon to go after entities or local governments or school districts that they have ideological disagreements with,” said Merideth. “That’s not what an auditor is supposed to do.”

Fitzpatrick’s critics said he has already transformed the treasurer’s office in a similar fashion where last year he refused to sign off on money-saving bond deals with school districts unless they dropped their COVID-19 health precautions.

“He’s already politicized the treasurer’s office and if he does win this race, he will certainly politicize the auditor’s office as well,” state Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Kansas City Democrat, said of Fitzpatrick. “That’s my fear for him taking over this position.”

State Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican, said he fully supports Fitzpatrick’s plan to make sure public money used in school districts is being appropriately managed. He said he did not know to what extent he would be able to audit curriculum, but he would support the idea.

“He’s certainly responding to the very pronounced interest on the part of parents around the state to make sure that what their students are being taught is in keeping with the real purpose of public education,” he said.