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Ky. House passes bill mandating how teachers talk about race, United States history

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J. Tyler Franklin
/
WFPL News

This story has been updated.

The Kentucky House has passed a measure that would dictate how teachers talk about race and U.S. history, and add a list of historical texts schools would have to incorporate into their social studies curricula.

The concept had already been advancing in the legislature in a separate proposal, Senate Bill 138. But during a flurry of activity on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers tacked on the language to Senate Bill 1, a separate measure that changes who makes decisions about K-12 curricula and school principal hiring.

Lawmakers also added a provision singling out the Jefferson County Board of Education, only allowing it to meet only once every four weeks.

The bundled proposal quickly passed out of the House Education Committee Tuesday morning and the full House in the afternoon. The Senate will now consider the measure.

Rep. Ed Massey, a Republican from Hebron and sponsor of the bill in the House, said the bill would create consistency for schools and students advancing through the system. The measure shifts control over curriculum to district superintendents and away from school-based councils of parents and educators.

“If different schools adopt a different curriculum that can create a problem, because as students arrive in the middle school level, they’re not aligned, they’ve come through different curriculums,” Massey said.

The provisions dealing with how teachers talk about race and U.S. history include model language featured in bills proposed around the country. The measures are inspired by a national conservative backlash against lessons on systemic racism and implicit bias. Groups opposed to these anti-racist initiatives refer to such trainings or lessons as “critical race theory,” or CRT, and have accused educators of using CRT to divide and indoctrinate children in leftist ideas.

The language from SB 138, which is identical to new paragraphs added to SB 1, requires public school instruction to be consistent with a number of ideas. Among them, “that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery and Jim Crow] is destructive to the unification of our nation.”

Rep. Attica Scott, a Democrat from Louisville who is Black, asked why connecting the dots between slavery or Jim Crow and modern-day discrimination is problematic.

“What is destructive to the unification of our nation?” Scott asked during the committee Tuesday morning.

The bill’s sponsor, Campbellsville Republican Sen. Max Wise, who is white, answered that the bill is an attempt to “unify.”

“If we go back and we always say that everything is based off of this point in history, is that unifying us?” Wise said. “That [slavery] was a bad point. So we want to make sure that where we are today, we don’t just always tell a student, ‘You can’t achieve in life because of a certain point in American history.’ That’s the destruction.”

Scott was not persuaded and voted against the measure in committee and again on the House floor

“I can’t abide by this bill: the erasure in it, the unnecessary attempt at classroom censorship,” she said.

Scott said the conversation made it “clear … that the bill sponsor [Wise] really is not interested in hearing from those of us who are different from the sponsor.”

Several Jefferson County Public Schools students testified against the bill in committee Tuesday morning, including JCPS 8th grader Jayus Rasheed. Rasheed, who is Black, said she has experienced racist comments in school about her hair and that her fellow students and teachers need training in implicit bias and cultural sensitivity.

“We need to be learning about cultural appropriation, we need to be learning about slavery so we cannot repeat the past. We are doomed to repeat the past if we do not learn it,” she said.

Wise asserted that the bill would not tell teachers how to teach and pointed to provisions that say nothing in the bill “shall be construed to restrict” public schools teaching about the history of an ethnic group, “controversial aspects of history”, or instruction on “the historical oppression of a particular group of people.”

Opponents who testified worried that despite the disclaimer, the bill will discourage speech on race in the classroom. Donnie Wilkerson is a social studies teacher from Russell County.

“A vote for this bill sends a chilling message to educators across this great commonwealth. That message: ‘Be careful what you say, the thought police are watching,’” Wilkerson said.

Who controls curriculum

In addition to the recently added “anti-CRT”- inspired provisions, Senate Bill 1 would make additional changes to curriculum—namely, who controls it.

The measure would strip power from school-based decision making councils, or SBDMs.

SBDMs are small governing boards for public schools, composed of parents, teachers and administrators. Current law puts the power to choose curriculum and school leaders with the SBDM. The proposal would move that power to district superintendents.

The proposal also puts new requirements and limits on the powers of the Jefferson County Board of Education, specifically.

The measure requires the Jefferson County Board of Education to complete a number of reports throughout the school year, and prevents the board from meeting more than once every four weeks “for the purpose of approving necessary administrative matters.”

The measure will now be considered by the Senate.

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