Kentucky lawmakers pass bill aimed at teaching ‘American principles’

Published 9:42 pm Thursday, March 24, 2022

Kentucky lawmakers voted Thursday to designate a set of historical documents and speeches to incorporate into classroom work — a response to the national debate over critical race theory.

The Republican-dominated Senate, on a 21-15 vote, sent the education measure to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. Other key features of the bill would shift principal hiring and curriculum setting authority to superintendents and away from school-based decision-making councils.

House lawmakers inserted the hotly debated provisions dealing with civics instruction into what had been a school governance measure designated as a top priority by the Senate.

Most of the Senate debate Thursday revolved around the additions to the measure. In the end, senators accepted the changes by the GOP-led House and advanced the bill to the governor.

Supporters say the two dozen historical documents and speeches listed in the legislation would offer a strong foundation for social studies work by Kentucky’s middle and high school students.

Opponents of those provisions have called them an overreach by the legislature into curriculum decision-making by local school districts..

“It sets a bad precedent to establish a list of these documents in statute,” said Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield.

GOP Sen. Max Wise said the documents show the “good and bad” of U.S. history. Incorporating them into classroom work reinforces “the American principles” students should be learning, he said.

He offered assurances that the measure won’t stifle the free speech of teachers or students. Wise sponsored the separate measure on the topic that was inserted into the bill sent to Beshear.

“There is nothing in this that will tell a teacher you cannot teach on a certain subject matter,” Wise said Thursday.

Documents listed in the measure include the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Monroe Doctrine. The bill also lists speeches by Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped public policy and institutions such as the legal system, and how those have perpetuated the dominance of white people in society. Multiple GOP-led states have banned or limited the teaching of critical race theory or similar concepts through laws or administrative actions.

Meanwhile, the parts of the bill shifting key school governance decisions to superintendents and away from school-based decision-making councils also sparked debate.

Supporters said that assigning curriculum and principal hiring decisions to superintendents would strengthen public accountability for key decisions that determine school and student success.

“It gives our schools back to the community at large,” said Republican Sen. John Schickel.

The bill’s critics worry that consolidating more authority with superintendents would weaken the influence of teachers and parents in school decision making.

The school-based decision-making councils were created by the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. The councils include parent and teacher members. The idea was to empower those closest to the students in helping set school policies.

The bill’s opponents also objected to a provision affecting Louisville by moving much of the day-to-day decision-making from the locally elected school board to the school superintendent. That part of the bill — also tacked on by the House — says how often the school board can meet.

In criticizing that provision, Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey said: “How would we feel if Washington set limits on how often this body could meet?”