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February 2022

SB 138 strikes the right balance in addressing CRT, social studies standards

I've written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about the legitimate need for parents and the public to confront the risk of critical race theory (CRT) being taught in Kentucky's schools, and also about deficiencies in the state's social studies standards. A bill currently under review in the Kentucky Senate makes major strides to address both of these issues and is worthy of the public's support.

As with many other states, multiple bills have been introduced in the Kentucky legislature this year that limit the way certain concepts related to critical race theory can be featured within instructional materials in public schools. These bills reflect a legimitate concern, because the assumptions of CRT are poisonous, ahistorical, and contrary to the founding principles of the United States and the values of most Kentuckians.  Schools should not promote these assumptions to students as fact

But there is another legitimate concern, expressed by many educators, that these bills could have the unintended effect of stifling meaningful classroom discussions about race and the role racism has played in the history of our country. I personally believe that these bills are not intended in any way to have this effect, or that they actually would in practice based on the way they are written. 

SB 138, sponsored by Sen. Maxwell Wise, chair of the Senate Education Committee, avoids this risk by stating in positive terms the underlying assumptions upon which the Commonwealth's social studies standards should be based, rather than outlining a list of assumptions that should not be featured in any school's curriculum. These core concepts include the following:

(a) All individuals are created equal;
(b) Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law;
(c) An individual deserves to be treated on the basis of the individual's character;
(d) An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race or sex;
(e) The understanding that the institution of slavery and post-Civil War laws enforcing racial segregation and discrimination were contrary to the fundamental American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of this institution is destructive to the unification of our nation;
(f) The future of America's success is dependent upon cooperation among all its citizens;
(g) Personal agency and the understanding that, regardless of one's circumstances, an American has the ability to succeed when he or she is given sufficient opportunity and is committed to seizing that opportunity through hard work, pursuit of education, and good citizenship; and
(h) The significant value of the American principles of equality, freedom, inalienable rights, respect for individual rights, liberty, and the consent of the governed.

These are reasonable, unifying concepts, consistent with the principles of the American Founding, that the vast majority of Kentuckians would agree are fundamental to our prosperity and freedom, and that should be part of the education of every American.

SB 138 makes explict that none of the above should be construed to limit instructional materials or lessons about the following:

(a) The history of an ethnic group, as described in textbooks and instructional materials adopted by a school district;
(b) The discussion of controversial aspects of history; or
(c) The instruction and instructional materials on the historical oppression of a particular group of people.

This subsection of the bill should put to rest any concerns that it would "whitewash" the teaching of American history .

SB 138 goes on to require the Kentucky Department of Education to update the state's social studies standards to include a list of important historical documents, including the Declaration of Independence, selected Federalist Papers, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of the Rights of Women, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and Letter from the Birmingham Jail, among others. 

Again, these are documents we should all agree are essential to the American experience and with which all Kentuckians should be familiar. Sadly, Kentucky's current social studies standards mention almost none of these documents

More work needs to be done to address the deficiencies in the state's social studies standards, but SB 138 represents a huge step in the right direction. 

SB 138 also requires the discussion of all controversial topics to be age appropriate, "nondiscriminatory, and respectful to the differing perspectives of students" and prohibits schools from requiring or rewarding a student to "advocate in a civic space on behalf of a perspective with which the student or the parent or guardian of a minor student does not agree."

Finally, SB 138 prohibits schools and districts from requiring employees to "engage in training, orientation, or therapy that coerces the employee to stereotype any group."

SB 138 is a reasonable piece of legislation that addresses a number of legitimate problems in education. The bill has passed out of committee and is awaiting approval by the full Senate before going on to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

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My war with the education establishment

A recurring theme in my life over the last eight or so years has been how frequently I get painted, especially on social media, as an enemy of public schools.

Sometimes I can laugh it off. After 25 years of working mostly in direct or indirect service of public schools, if I have an agenda to destroy public education I must have an awfully odd - and ineffective - way of going about it. 

The truth is I am not an enemy of public education. But I am quite frequently at odds with the education establishment. In my latest essay for Chalkboard Review, I distinguish public school teachers - most of whom I admire very much - from the establishment: 

When I say I am at war with the education establishment, I’m not talking about ordinary classroom teachers or school principals. I’m talking about the cabal of teachers unions and professional associations representing administrators and school boards that constitute the most powerful lobby in our state capitol. The education establishment ferociously defends adult interests against changes that might benefit students, families, and even teachers themselves. This education establishment does not represent the voice of most teachers in Kentucky, although they try relentlessly to shape the opinions and mobilize the political influence of ordinary educators. Because I am for public schools, I must be against this establishment.

My commitments are not to the infrastructure of public education, but to students, their families, and to teachers themselves:

I did not become a teacher to defend the infrastructure of public education. My commitment is first to students and their families, especially families that are marginalized by poverty and lack the ability to vote with their feet if they are unsatisfied with their child’s education. 

My second commitment is to teachers themselves, who are often hamstrung in their effectiveness by the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all, change-resistant structures of education. Teachers have much to gain by the flexibility and innovation they could enjoy in a rich school choice environment and with greater freedom to earn their credentials and advance their careers. 

These ordinary families and ordinary teachers don’t have a powerful, taxpayer-funded union or professional association to represent their needs in the state capitol. That’s why I dedicate my public policy efforts to them, rather than promoting or defending “public education” writ large.

Read the whole thing here.

Yes, it's time to reform Kentucky's School-Based Decision-Making Councils

In my latest guest editorial for Kentucky Fried Politics, I argue that it's past time to reform Kentucky's law governing School-Based Decision-Making (SBDM) Councils.

But unlike proposed legislation that would divest SBDM Councils of all their power and give it to the district superintendent, I argue that a better path would be changing the make-up of the Councils to give parents and the public an equal seat at the table with educators:

Superintendents are only as accountable to the public as the local boards of education make them. And as many voters have discovered over the last year when it came to mask mandates or addressing legitimate concerns about what is being taught in schools, local board members can be highly defensive and, especially in districts where they are controlled by teachers unions, utterly deaf to the voices of ordinary parents.

SBDM Councils have the capacity to be much more responsive to parents, but only if their basic power structure is changed. Lawmakers should consider changing SBDM law to give parents and equal number of seats on the Council as teachers hold and add another seat for a non-parent member of the community.

Read the whole thing here.

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