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Ky. superintendents give preliminary thumbs-up to ‘anti-CRT’-inspired changes to social studies

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WFPL
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Stephanie Wolf
Students in an 11th grade U.S. history class at Male High School learn about how racial violence and oppressive Jim Crow laws drove many Black Americans out of the South during the Great Migration in the 1900s.

An advisory committee has given a preliminary thumbs-up to change Kentucky’s social studies standards, as required under a new state law that supporters say is meant to root out “critical race theory” in public schools.

So-called “critical race theory” became a popular target for conservative and right-wing activists, pundits and politicians opposed to diversity initiatives in workplaces and schools.

The Local Superintendents Advisory Committee voted in favor of the changes, which make it mandatory for teachers to use certain “fundamental American documents” in teaching academic standards set by the state. The documents are from a list of 24 speeches and texts selected primarily by bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Max Wise, who is now running mate for Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft. Wise previously said the list comes in part from 1776 Unites, a project formed by conservative Black civil rights activist Bob Woodson as a rebuttal to the New York Times’ 1619 Project.


The list of texts includes many documents already commonly taught in schools, from The Declaration of Independence, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream.” Also included are the Bill of Rights, Frederick Douglass’ “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” and a speech Ronald Reagan gave in 1964 campaigning for failed Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

The committee’s approval means the changes go to the Kentucky Board of Education next month. If approved by the board, the edits would become final in time for the July 2023 deadline set by state lawmakers.

Superintendents voted unanimously in favor of the changes, but their “yes” votes did not come without criticism.

Ludlow Independent Schools Superintendent Mike Borchers said academic standards need to remain “consistent.” The state normally reviews and updates standards every six years through an extensive process that involves feedback from teachers, experts and community members.

Borchers said he and his colleagues need to advocate for lawmakers to use “caution” when dictating “specific things that have to be taught.”

“This could be something changing every single year for our folks if we get into this mess,” Borchers said. “That’s not going to be good for any student or any teacher.”

A public survey earlier this fall shows most respondents strongly agreed with the changes or were neutral. A small portion of the 400 respondents were strongly opposed to the changes.

Kentucky Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Micki Ray said some opposed the changes because they felt the list of documents lacked diversity. Of the 24 documents, only one was authored by a woman. None were authored by Native Americans, Latinos or people of Asian descent.


Others were opposed, Ray said, because they felt the changes didn’t go far enough. Rather than adding the “fundamental documents” into the standards themselves, the state has proposed adding them into a sort of “clarifying” addendum that tells educators how to teach the standards.

To alleviate those concerns, the department proposed a new eighth grade standard, which says students should be able to “analyze the impact” of 15 documents, from the list selected by lawmakers, on the development of the U.S from 1600 to 1877.

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass said there’s nothing that prevents teachers from bringing in additional, more diverse texts.

“Sen. Wise was … to his credit, clear that he did not intend for those documents that he put forth to be exclusive to other things that students can be exposed to,” Glass said.

Kentucky isn’t the only state that’s changing its standards in response to a backlash against culturally inclusive curriculum. Last week, parents, educators and community members flocked to a Virginia Board of Education meeting to oppose a draft social studies standards rewrite that many say “whitewashes” history.

Virginia education officials have apologized for an early version of the changes that erased Martin Luther King Jr. from elementary school standards and referred to Native Americans incorrectly as the country’s “first immigrants.”

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.
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