Education

State and local education leaders doubled down on their commitment to racial equity Tuesday, during an hours-long legislative committee meeting about critical race theory.

The decades-old theory, a critique of systemic racism in the legal field, has become a lightning rod for some conservatives who are distressed by diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in schools and workplaces. A handful of Kentucky Republican lawmakers have pre-filed bills that they say would ban critical race theory from public K-12 schools, colleges and universities.

Addressing the Interim Joint Education Committee remotely, Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass blasted the bills as “educator gag and student censorship bills.”

“Laws like these are increasingly the tools of some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, and the fact that the Kentucky legislature is now considering them, and has called this special meeting on them, should cause us all to pause and consider our next move carefully and how history will judge all of us,” he said.

Similar bills have been filed in state legislatures across the country and have passed in at least four other red states. The Kentucky bills would limit the way teachers and professors could talk about racism, especially systemic racism. Much of the language comes from a now-defunct Trump-era executive order curtailing diversity, equity and inclusion training in federal agencies. 

Glass said the bills could harm the academic freedom of Kentucky colleges and universities and even put their accreditation at risk. Asked about that risk, sponsor Rep. Matt Lockett (R-Nicholasville) said his bill is a “work in progress.”

Lockett said the bill is a “vital” piece of legislation. He warned that critical race theory is “rooted in Marxism.”

“A number of regimes went through Marxist-style revolutions, and each one of them ended in disaster,” he said. “You don’t close the achievement gaps or raise a segment of the population up by tearing another one down.”

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said that’s not what his district is doing. He reminded Republican lawmakers of their praise for the district’s equity efforts in September 2020. Those efforts included creating a more culturally-inclusive curriculum, hiring more teachers of color, and reducing disproportionate suspensions of Black students and students with disabilities.

“I will say this again: we are committed to achieving equity by challenging and questioning all of our practices and changing where necessary. That’s the work that has to be done in every district in America to eliminate that achievement gap and not just give lip service to it,” he said.

Both Pollio and Glass took care to distinguish between “equity” and “critical race theory.” 

“We started the conversation around critical race theory, which is a very narrow theory or philosophy, and unfortunately that umbrella has now grown to include anything that is included around racial equity,” Pollio said. 

Equity is a widely-accepted ideal, if not a buzzword in education. It means students are provided the opportunities and resources they need to succeed based on their differing needs. This is different from “equality,” in which all students receive the same resources. 

But recently, even “equity” as a concept has drawn skepticism from conservative corners as a form of “reverse-racism.”

“Our founding documents forward talk about us all being equal under the law, born equal,” Rep. Jennifer Henson Decker (R-Waddy) said. 

“Where is equity enforced? How is equity enforced and where is that in our founding principles?” she asked Glass.

The bill will be considered by the legislature when lawmakers return to Frankfort in January. 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.