Education

The Jefferson County Board of Education met Tuesday night to discuss a wishlist for the Kentucky General Assembly’s upcoming legislative session in January. In a draft legislative priorities plan, the district plans to seek more flexibility to use remote instruction as the pandemic continues, an increase in state funding and legislative support for racial equity initiatives. 

In addition, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio plans to oppose any measures that divert tax revenue from public schools to private schools or charter schools.

Board members will give final approval to the legislative priorities at a later meeting. 

The board did not allow an in-person public comment period, a break from the way the board traditionally runs its meetings. 

“Important business must be conducted during our meetings. That was not possible earlier this month,” JCPS spokesperson Renee Murphy said, referring to an Oct. 5 meeting that was derailed when public comment boiled over.

State law does not require boards to allow public comment.

Pandemic flexibility

JCPS is planning to ask lawmakers to extend several pandemic-related relief measures passed in the special session in September: relaxing the way districts count attendance (and therefore get funded), making it easier to rehire retired teachers and giving districts more flexibility with the school calendar. Lawmakers also gave each district 20 “remote learning days” to split among their schools—days when the entire district is not allowed to use remote learning days, but a specific class, school or group of students could do so.

Pollio wants lawmakers to give districts more leeway to go into remote learning and give an additional 20 remote learning days, plus 10 more nontraditional instruction days (NTI), which allow the entire district to move into remote or hybrid learning.

“We do have to continue to plan and be prepared for another surge [of COVID-19], if that comes,” Pollio told the board.

JCPS hasn’t used any remote learning days or NTI days so far this school year.

More broadly, the district wants more local control when it comes to COVID-19. 

“JCPS opposes legislation that would take away or overturn local school board decision-making related to COVID-19 mitigation and public health efforts,” the draft legislative agenda reads. 

A few Republican lawmakers brought forward measures during the special session that would have prohibited school boards from imposing mask mandates. But the measures did not pass.

Republicans did, however, pass a law knocking down a statewide mask mandate from the Kentucky Department of Education.

Other health measures JCPS wants action on are vaping and mental health. The district plans to ask the legislature for laws that discourage students from using tobacco and vaping products. JCPS also wants increased state support and funding for student mental health care.

More funding

The district wants lawmakers to increase the state’s contribution to school funding, known as the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky program, or SEEK. SEEK is a complicated funding formula developed in 1990 to more equitably distribute state funding. Districts with higher property wealth, such as JCPS, receive less state funding because the state assumes they can gather more funds in local property taxes. Districts with lower property wealth, including many rural districts, get more state funding.

However, the state’s contribution has remained stagnant for many years and has not kept up with inflation or growing costs of supporting more students in poverty.

JCPS is planning to ask the legislature to come up with a plan for increasing funding. The district wants the legislature to fund full-day kindergarten, which it did for the first time this year. Pollio also wants lawmakers to fully fund transportation costs, textbook costs and teacher recruitment and training programs that the state has historically funded, but has cut in recent years.

On the other hand, Pollio said he wants the board to oppose any measures that send tax dollars to private or charter schools.  

“There will be no bartering or trade, so to speak, in that regard because we have to stand strong against that and will continue to do so against privatization,” Pollio said.

Lawmakers passed a controversial tax-credit scholarship plan earlier this year, which allows individuals and corporations to donate to a scholarship fund in lieu of paying their state taxes. Low and middle-income families can use the funds to pay for private school tuition in some counties, including Jefferson. The program is currently blocked, after a judge ruled it violates Kentucky’s constitution. Private school advocates plan to appeal.

Inclusive curriculum

Under the draft legislative agenda, the district would oppose “legislation that would ban or limit the teaching of historically accurate facts and infringe on student’s First Amendment rights.”

The opposition appears aimed at two bills Republican lawmakers have pre-filed that would limit the way teachers could discuss systemic racism and sexism in the classroom. The bills’ sponsors say they’re meant to ban “critical race theory” from Kentucky classrooms, a legal framework for understanding systemic racism developed in the 1980s. 

By contrast, the draft legislative agenda says JCPS would support legislation that would “work toward increasing culturally relevant curriculum in schools, with emphasis on expanding curricula beyond Euro-centric perspectives. JCPS also supports legislation that would provide for quality implicit bias training for staff.”

These types of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have come under fire from some far-right, anti-critical race theory activists.

You can find the rest of the draft legislative priorities here.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.