Education Kentucky Politics

A bill dictating how teachers talk about American history has cleared one chamber of the Kentucky General Assembly. 

The state Senate passed the GOP-backed bill 28-8 along party lines. It now heads to the state House, where GOP lawmakers have proposed similar legislation.

The bill is one of many measures Republicans have introduced nationwide aimed at rooting out anti-racist curriculum in schools. Some conservatives say such curriculum amounts to leftist indoctrination. They have co-opted the term “critical race theory” to describe a wide range of anti-racist ideas and history lessons they object to.

“There’s got to be some guardrails, and you just can’t say wherever you want to in the classroom. And the fact that you have a college degree in education and in history does not give you an unfiltered license to say and do whatever you want to do,” Leitchfield Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith said in support of the measure in the state Senate.

Campbellsville Republican and Senate Education Committee Chair Max Wise introduced Senate Bill 138. It requires instruction to be “consistent” with a number of ideas, including “that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery] is destructive to the unification of our nation.”

“Rather than instructing our students on how to think, let’s guide them on what to think and to think about,” Wise said on the floor.

In a follow-up statement, Wise’s office said he misspoke, and his notes read “Rather than instructing our students WHAT to think, let’s guide them on HOW to think.” The statement called his comments on the Senate floor “a simple word slip.”

All eight Democratic senators opposed the measure.

“If you look at the text of Senate Bill 138, it doesn’t really teach history—it teaches ideology,” Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas of Lexington said.

Thomas called the specter of critical race theory a “boogeyman.”

“What we do have here is an agenda that’s being set forward that I think is dangerous. I think it’s not educational. And I think it tends to whitewash history,” Thomas said.

“It is going to have a chilling effect on what is taught in classrooms,” Democratic Sen. Morgan McGarvey of Louisville said. He also criticized provisions that prevent public schools from giving students credit for participating in legislative advocacy. 

“The bill differentiates between what public and private school students can do,” he said.

Sen. Gerald Neal, another Louisville Democrat, said certain provisions would make it difficult to provide training on white privilege, implicit bias and cultural sensitivity. Neal said that sort of training is critical right now: he pointed to the recent surfacing of a photo of Paducah schools superintendent Donald Shively in blackface at a Halloween party in 2002. 

We need training,” Neal said. “We have racism that permeates our society.”

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Benton Republican, rose to defend the bill and Shively, saying the superintendent has shown he’s focused on improving outcomes for minority students.

“He is not a racist. He fights for his students regardless of race,” Carroll said.

The measure now heads to the House, where three similar measures have been filed.

The ACLU of Kentucky blasted the Senate’s vote.

“Bills like SB138 are part of a nationwide strategy to whitewash history, perpetuate white supremacy, and erase marginalized people – particularly people of color and LGBTQ people. They would also deny educators and students their First Amendment right to free speech,” the left-learning organization wrote in a statement.

Similar legislation, passed in West Virginia, Oklahoma and other states, is the subject of federal lawsuits.

This story has been updated to add Wise’s follow-up statement.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.