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The legislature’s done a lot with education this session. Here’s what you need to know

J. Tyler Franklin

There are just two days left in the 2022 legislative session before the veto period. Here’s a round-up of the education bills we’re watching.

Already passed ‘Go’

Senate Bill 1 started out as a provision to give district superintendents the power to set curriculum and hire principals. School-based decision making councils (SBDMs) — composed of teachers, parents and school administrators – have held the power to set curriculum, hire school leaders, oversee school budgets and set school policies since 1990.

The Kentucky School Boards Association, the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents and other proponents of the original provisions in SB1 say the legislation moves important decision-making power closer to each district’s elected school board, and therefore allows for “broader public input.” Proponents also say it makes it easier to ensure high-quality curriculum is standard across the district.

Opponents, including many parents and teachers, say it disempowers those with the most skin in the game: parents, educators and students at each school.

The version of SB1 that cleared both chambers included two major additions. Republicans added in the entirety of the language in Senate Bill 138, a controversial bill from Republican Sen. Max Wise, which is inspired by concern over purported “critical race theory” in schools.

The measure directs educators to teach American history in a way some teachers and historians say whitewashes the role of racism in shaping society. It also includes a list of historical documents that middle and high schools must embed into their curriculum.

The second addition is also controversial: Republicans added provisions singling out the Jefferson County Board of Education and preventing the board from meeting more than once every four weeks to approve administrative matters.

Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Diane Porter has already vowed to take legal action if the measure becomes law.

“The attempt to restrict the authority of a duly elected board of education for the state’s largest majority-minority district is very concerning and perhaps unconstitutional,” Porter wrote in a statement Wednesday, after the House added the language targeting the board.

SB 1 heads to Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk. If the Democratic governor decides to veto any part of the measure, Republicans have enough support in both chambers to easily override it.

Senate Bill 83 prevents transgender girls and women from playing on girls or women’s sports teams in middle school, high school or college. The bill cleared the Senate 26-9 Thursday in a final vote before heading to Gov. Andy Beshear. The measure has enough Republican support in both chambers to override a veto from the Democratic governor.

The measure requires students on girls or women’s teams to have been designated female on their birth certificates, or have a medical professional’s affidavit swearing to the student’s “biological sex at the time of birth.”

Similar bans targeting transgender girls and women athletes have passed in other states, including in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed the measure.

A 2021 West Virginia ban against transgender athletes is currently blocked, while a federal judge considers a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups.

On the move

House Bill 9, the charter school funding bill, cleared the House Tuesday, and is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee Monday afternoon.

Charter schools have been legal in Kentucky since 2017, but none exist here because lawmakers didn’t set up a permanent way to fund them. HB 9 would require school districts to fund approved charter schools within their borders. It also mandates the creation of charter schools in Louisville and northern Kentucky.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools run by private boards. They operate under far fewer regulations than traditional public schools, and advocates say that makes them centers for education innovation. They are controversial because opponents say they siphon resources and students from traditional public schools. Research on their efficacy is mixed.

Gov. Andy Beshear came out strongly against HB 9, calling charter schools “unconstitutional” and vowing to veto any measure that passed on them.

The measure still needs to clear the Senate and it’s not clear supporters have enough votes to override a veto. Many Republicans, especially from rural areas, have joined Democrats in opposing the bill.

House Bill 63 would require school districts to have an armed school-based police officer on each school campus by Aug. 1, 2022, or get sign-off from the state. The measure, as adopted by a Senate committee, would also codify the authority of school districts to create their own police departments.

A bill funding Kentucky State University with the $23 million it needs to keep operating has passed the House but is awaiting a committee hearing in the Senate.

House Bill 250 is a rescue effort for KSU, which found itself in financial distress in 2021, after its president left and was later accused of mismanagement.

Gov. Andy Beshear has already signed a bill passed through both chambers, which requires a replacement of KSU’s governing board.

Dying on the vine?

A bill banning mask mandates in schools,  House Bill 51, passed the House but has not yet been heard in a Senate committee. The measure prohibits public schools, public colleges and universities and publicly-funded child care centers from requiring students to wear masks.

An expansion of the state’s private school scholarship program proposed in the House and Senate has not yet been heard in committee in either chamber. The measure would extend the state’s “Education Opportunity Act” program to students in all counties. It allows individuals and corporations to donate to scholarship funds in lieu of paying state taxes. Middle-income and low-income families can use those funds for private school tuition in the state’s most populous counties.

The tax-credit scholarship program is currently blocked, after a Franklin County judge found it unconstitutional. Advocates are appealing to the state Supreme Court.

A proposed ban on corporal punishment in schools has not yet been heard in committee. The measure, House Bill 119, would make it illegal for public school employees to use physical discipline on students, such as slapping or paddling. Corporal punishment is legal in Kentucky, as it is in many states. However, it’s rarely used, and only about a dozen districts condone the practice.

The Kentucky Board of Education put new guardrails on the practice late last year, prohibiting its use on students with disabilities and other vulnerable children.

Republican Rep. Steve Riley, a retired public school administrator, has been sponsoring the bill unsuccessfully for several years.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.
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