UPDATE: Lawmakers pass bill aimed at teaching American principles

The legislation is in response to the national debate over critical race theory

Update from March 24, 2022:

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers gave final passage Thursday to a bill designating a set of historical documents and speeches to incorporate into classroom work — a response to the national debate over critical race theory.

The sweeping education measure also would shift principal hiring and curriculum setting authority to superintendents and away from school-based decision-making councils.

The Republican-run Senate voted 21-15 to send the legislation to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

House lawmakers inserted the hotly debate civics instruction provisions into what had been a school governance measure designated as a top priority by the Senate.

Most of the final debate Thursday revolved around the additions to the measure.

Supporters said the two dozen historical documents and speeches listed in the legislation would offer a strong foundation for social studies work by Kentucky’s middle and high school students. Opponents of those provisions to the bill called them an overreach by the legislature.

“It sets a bad precedent to establish a list of these documents in statute — documents that some of us agree with and some of us don’t,” Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield said.

GOP Sen. Max Wise said the documents show the “good and bad” of U.S. history. Incorporating them into classroom work reinforces “the American principles” students should be learning, he said.

“There is nothing in this that will tell a teacher you cannot teach on a certain subject matter,” Wise said.


Update posted at 6:00 p.m., February 17, 2022:   

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Legislation that calls on public schools to teach certain concepts and historical documents – ones that supporters say are central to American principles – cleared the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.

Senate Bill 138 says schools must provide instruction in social studies that aligns with a list of concepts such as “all individuals are created equal” and “Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law,” among several others.

It also calls for topics on public policy or social affairs to be taught with consideration of the students’ age and for educators to incorporate two dozen core documents from American history into lessons.

The bill’s primary sponsor and chair of the committee, Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, said the purpose of the legislation is to preserve alignment of middle and high school standards with American principles of equality and freedom.

“Amid national and state-wide tensions that seem to be further dividing us, I’ve drafted a bill with the intent to unify, Wise said.

“Our entire country is facing a lack of knowledge when it comes to civics education. This is at no fault to our educators, but rather a reflection on a growing concern that Americans are falling behind in understanding the importance of civics and government education,” he continued.

Wise testified that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than a quarter of American 12th graders are proficient in civics, and only 12% are proficient in U.S. history.

“Although the new K-12 social studies standards have been upgraded to quality performance-based terminology, both educators and parents have complained that the standards seem to lack specific reference to key people, key events, key struggles and key challenges and also ongoing successes that have forged American democratic principles of equality, freedom and individual rights,” Wise said.

Some of the documents and speeches that would be incorporated into middle and high school social studies include The Mayflower Compact, The Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, The 1796 Farewell Address by George Washington, The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln, Of Booker T. Washington and Others by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. But it also includes a Ronald Reagan campaign speech paying tribute to former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who opposed integration and the Civil Rights Act.

The bill was approved in committee after a series of changes to the original wording. Wise said the revisions clarified his intent and reflected input from various stakeholders.

Several people, both for and against the legislation, took turns testifying before committee members. They included parents, students, a man whose family was directly affected by the Holocaust, educators and a representative from the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.

Senate Minority Caucus Chair Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, complimented Wise for considering input, but said he is not in favor of the bill.

“I don’t know why we create this boogeyman of critical race theory, and now we’re buying into that here in Kentucky because we don’t teach critical race theory here in our K-12 schools,” he said. “And I don’t know why we have to color the boogeyman of critical race theory Black. I am really troubled by that because that just feeds into racism that exists all across this country.”

Thomas said the teaching of history should be open for discussion, and he fears not talking about it could make matters worse. Even some of the United States’ most terrible times in history should be freely broached, he said.

“We’ve got to talk about slavery and the oppression that occurred. We’ve got to talk about the Trail of Tears and the horrors that Native Americans faced. We’ve got to talk about the Holocaust in hopes that we never see that again. I mean, those are things that happened in our past,” he said.


Original story below from February 17, 2022: 

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ/Press Release) – Senate Bill 138, the “Teaching America’s Principles” Act sponsored by Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), seeks to educate students on the foundations of America’s principles through the inclusion of primary source historical documents. This bill presents a different viewpoint than many before it by setting guidelines to include core material that must be taught, rather than banning curriculum many deem controversial.

The measure is a contrast both to proposals to ban the teaching of the so-called Critical Race Theory that includes more information about the history and role of African-Americans in the nation and that curriculum itself.

“I drafted this bill as a means to unify us,” Wise said. “It is critical that our children in grades K-12 are educated in not only the good, but also the controversial aspects of our history, and in understanding the key American principles of equality, freedom and personal agency. These are the ideals that make our country uniquely special.”

SB 138 extends existing elementary history standards to middle and high school and reflect concerns and feedback from educators and parents alike. It incorporates references to key people, events, struggles, challenges and continued successes that have cemented American democratic principles of equality, freedom and individual rights. Through studying a baseline of 24 primary source core historical documents, students will learn to think critically about the founding of our nation and how to think rather than what to think.

A subset of the baseline documents outlined in SB 138 include core documents recognized by the Ashbrook Center, which includes work from various social studies scholars and promotes inducing young people to the real story of America — the good and the bad — through primary documents.

Wise met with leaders of 1776 Unites, a project by the non-partisan Woodson Center, on the best way to address the educational and cultural challenges presented within K-12 history curricula in the commonwealth. The Interim Joint Committee on Education heard testimony from Mr. Ian Rowe. 1776 Unites encourages lawmakers to include tenants in the legislation teaching students to strive toward upward mobility, become free critical thinkers and create their own destiny.

“While many would choose to perpetuate and seemingly celebrate our growing national division, it’s time for us to be a model state,” Wise said. “It is time we find common ground, unify around what makes us America and spread these principles to our next generation of leaders.”

In addition to upgrading history standards, SB 138 prohibits the requirement or incentivisation of students to complete assignments or projects political or socially ideological in nature, if deemed to be against the values or objections of the student or their family. Projects assigned must be age appropriate and relevant to the knowledge level, maturity and understanding of the students assigned to, along with being nondiscriminatory and respectful in nature.

Also included in the bill is a provision that allows educators to opt out of professional training that pushes specific narratives of racial, ethnic or gender stereotyping. The intent of the bill is to give teachers the “ingredients” required for instructing American history in a well-rounded manner, but allowing them to design the “recipe” by which to do so.

“Representing the voices I have heard from across the state, it is my resolve to pass legislation that establishes and promotes true American principles within Kentucky state standards,” Wise said. “It is vital that we allow teachers, in nurturing settings, to instruct our next generation on our country’s foundational core documents that reveal how Americans have agreed, disagreed, fallen short and progressed on the meaning of freedom and self-government.”

SB 138 was drafted with input from educators, parents, students and residents from across the state. It will be heard by the Senate Standing Committee on Education at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, February 17.

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