Education Kentucky Politics

Amid a nationwide backlash against school curriculum that centers marginalized voices, Senate Education Committee Chair Max Wise filed a bill Thursday that would force teachers to talk about the history of the United States in a certain way. Some teachers call the bill “propaganda,” and worry that it will stifle classroom discussions on racism.

The bill is the third filed in Kentucky that seeks to limit teachers’ ability to talk about race. It’s the latest push in a national conservative movement that opposes anti-racist initiatives, which many refer to as “critical race theory.”

While two previous Kentucky bills would prohibit teachers from discussing certain concepts, Wise’s bill would force teachers to characterize U.S. history in specific ways that teachers say dilutes the role of racism in shaping society.

The bill from Wise, a Campbellsville Republican, says public schools must provide “instruction consistent with” a number of beliefs, including:

  • “Defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery and Jim Crow] is destructive to the unification of our nation.”
  • “Regardless of race, sex or socioeconomic status, an American has the power 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.”
  • “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.”

The provision includes a list of 24 historical speeches and texts that must be “embedded” across all middle and high school curricula. Those include the Declaration of Independence, certain articles from the Federalist Papers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, unspecified texts of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, and Ronald Reagan’s “A time for choosing” speech.

“That is propaganda,” Knox Central High School teacher Christina Trosper told WFPL News.

“It’s a slippery slope to fascism, when you start telling people what they can and cannot think, what they can and cannot read, that they can only see these things, or you have to have these certain things in there,” she said.

In LaRue County, Abraham Lincoln Elementary School librarian Jennifer Propes was particularly worried about a provision that says teachers should provide “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people.” 

“Not all sides deserve equal representation, I don’t think,” Propes said.

Propes uses the book “Henry’s Freedom Box” with her third-graders. It’s a children’s book about Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped slavery by mailing himself to the North in 1849. A passage that often resonates with students describes when Brown’s enslaver sells away his family.

“As an educator, I just can’t fathom, telling my students ‘Oh, but wait, you know, think about it, if you were the master, this would be great for you, it would benefit you’,” Propes said. “How can I reasonably say that to my students? My white students, my Black students, all of my students—it’s just—it’s alarming.”

There’s also a provision that prevents schools from requiring “training, orientation, or therapy that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or blame on the basis of race or sex.”

Propes said she believes provisions like this one show a misunderstanding of implicit bias trainings, which became more common since the racial justice movement of 2020.

“I believe that bills like this perpetuate that misunderstanding,” she said. “If some constituents see these bills—their legislators putting this in writing—then they think ‘Oh, this must be bad, what the school districts are requiring must be bad, if this lawmaker is trying to prevent it,’” she said.

Sen. Max Wise did not respond to WFPL’s request for comment by our deadline.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.