Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today virtually and regret that I am not in person to do so as our family has a long-standing tradition of vacationing together this week.
I want to begin by stating that the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and I are not the legal defense team for Critical Race Theory, or CRT. If the legislature wishes to have an in-depth briefing on CRT, then I’d suggest a legal or academic scholar who has studied and uses the concept in some depth. While we have an understanding and familiarity with CRT, and have worked to expand our knowledge on the theory in preparation for this meeting, we are not experts or users.
My goals with you today will be to provide a brief overview of CRT, advise you of its use (or rather lack thereof) in Kentucky’s public schools, to brief you on the department’s ongoing work around equity (which is different than CRT), to discuss the prefiled bills related to CRT, their potential impact on teaching and learning in the state, and finally to offer an alternative for consideration as the legislature studies this matter. That is a lot to cover in 10-15 minutes, but I will do my best!
Critical race theory is a decades old legal and academic theory which seeks to explain why racism continues to exist. The theory is intended to provide a framework for study of the potential causes and effects of racism in society and how they might be mitigated.
CRT is typically a graduate level academic theory or a concept taught in law school. The discussion of some concepts related to CRT might appear in a high school elective course that considers the historical, political, and sociological aspects of racism and events. However, its developmental appropriateness for high school students would be quite narrow and it would likely not be an appropriate concept for students in middle or elementary schools.
In terms of the intersection of CRT and Kentucky’s K-12 schools, as you know curricular decisions are left to school-based decision making councils in Kentucky. At this time, KDE is not aware of any districts or teachers specifically teaching critical race theory and neither CRT nor terms associated with the theory appear in our state standards.
I’d like to shift now to KDE’s equity work. To be clear, equity and CRT are not the same thing. Equity in education is fundamentally an effort to ensure that all of our students have the supports they need to meet our academic standards and to reach their full potential as students, citizens and human beings. An equity focus in education recognizes that public school students come to us with a variety of backgrounds, needs, supports and experiences, and that we must take those into account when we consider the education of each child.
When we provide students with disabilities the supports they need to participate in school and access the curriculum, this is equity. When we make sure that our children are not hungry at school by providing them with free or reduced price meals, this is equity. When we make sure that our students who are learning English are provided the supports they need to learn the language and to continue learning in their other subjects, this is equity. When we make sure that our poorest and most rural parts of the state have access to a high quality and representative teacher workforce, this is equity. When we make sure that students who have different levels of support at home can participate in events, trips, sports and extracurricular activities regardless of their backgrounds, this is equity. And when we make sure that none of our students are taught under the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as President George W. Bush once said, this also is equity.
Given the misinformation present when it comes to CRT and equity, I want to establish a bright line – and to say these are not the same thing. Our efforts to promote equity in Kentucky’s schools are essential if we are to realize our aspirations of providing a meaningful and quality educational experience for every child.
KDE’s work on equity involves development of an optional “equity toolkit” for schools and districts to use. The Toolkit will include:
- An equity dashboard, where differences in outcomes across several different student subgroups.
- An equity playbook, which includes 5 strategic moves a school or district can enact to improve equity including:
- Making sure that all students have access to high quality instructional resources, evidenced-based instructional practices and high quality teachers.
- Strategies also include considerations around equitable resource allocation and efforts to eliminate disproportionality when it comes to things such as access to high level coursework and how student discipline is delivered.
Our efforts at promoting equity in Kentucky’s schools also include efforts to increase and retain greater numbers of minority educators as part of a larger educator pipeline effort called GoTeachKY. We are also developing optional training modules for Kentucky educators related to their expectations for students, and how we must hold all of them to high standards with the belief that every child is capable of learning and success.
I’ll now turn to the prefiled bills related to CRT and provide my perspective on them. At their core, BR60 and BR69 are educator gag and student censorship bills that seek to define what can and cannot be taught or discussed, either formally or informally, in Kentucky’s schools on a number of concepts related to race and other sometimes controversial matters.
Notably, these censorship bills circumvent the decisions of school-based councils (which have long been entrusted to make curricular decisions in Kentucky’s schools in keeping with our tradition of local control) and replaces our local decision-making process with a mandate from the state legislature.
One of the tests for what is offensive in these bills is not based on facts, but “feelings” of “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, sex, or religion.” Such a standard will be nearly impossible to enforce and may create significant constitutional challenges that Kentucky will have to defend. The constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech allows people in the United States to express their views, regardless of what feelings or discomfort it may cause in others. It will be difficult to have any meaningful discussion of history if all concepts must be vetted on whether or not they create uncomfortable feelings in some individual or group.
BR69 also extends this censorship to institutions of higher education, which presents another set of problems. Academic free speech on university campuses is well established and protected under previous supreme court rulings, and the bans on teaching or discussion in both of these bills would put the accreditation of Kentucky’s public colleges and universities at risk.
In addition to the potential loss of accreditation, law students graduating from Kentucky’s public law schools would be unprepared if they encountered elements related to critical race theory in court, and graduate students in fields such as sociology or political science would find themselves unfamiliar with the concepts as they began their professional careers. This highlights one of the problems with all censorship efforts – the ideas are already out in the open. If these laws were to pass, limiting discussion about them only keeps students in Kentucky, and in a few other states where these laws have passed, ignorant about these concepts.
And notably, neither of the prefiled bills extends to private schools or private colleges – only public. This is relevant, as the legislature has now effectively extended public funds to K-12 private schools through the tax credit system that passed last session. So students in private schools supported by these tax credits would be allowed to learn about or discuss critical race theory, or other concepts related to it, while these same concepts in public schools would be banned.
K-12 public educators found to have violated some element of these bills can find themselves subject to dismissal, loss of licensure or fines for their districts. Yet no such penalties exist for higher education or private institutions. This represents yet another specific attack on Kentucky’s public educators. Across Kentucky this summer, our schools are struggling to find teachers in all fields as we have educators leaving the field while we struggle to recruit new teachers into the profession. I would urge the legislature to consider how their actions have contributed to these shortages, and how this threat to Kentucky’s public educators will be perceived and what impact it might have.
In order to enact these proposed laws, the legislature must be prepared to violate long standing traditions when it comes to local decision making on curriculum in Kentucky. You must also be prepared to violate American values when it comes to the importance of the free exchange of ideas and speech.
These bills are part of a growing international class of policies called “memory” laws, which according to Yale history professor Tim Syder are “government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past. Such measures work by asserting a mandatory view of historical events, by forbidding the discussion of historical facts or interpretations or by providing vague guidelines that lead to self-censorship.”
Memory laws like these are increasingly the tools of some of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world. The fact that the Kentucky legislature is now considering them and has called this special meeting on them, should cause us all to pause and consider our next moves carefully … and how history will judge all of us.
I recognize that there is a great deal of interest on this topic right now, and that our legislators are getting a great deal of pressure and correspondence about it. So, I understand that there is some level of urgency to take some action. Instead of the two prefiled bills, I’d like to offer the legislature another viewpoint on this and an alternative path forward to consider.
One of the most important goals in educating our citizens is for them to ultimately be able to discern truth and make their own decisions about the right and best path forward. This is important to them both as individuals, and to the continuation of our democratic republic.
The way we go about uncovering truth and making decisions is through open dialogue, deliberation, and the application of critical thinking – where we interrogate different concepts and ideas, and weigh their merit against other concepts and ideas, and then make determinations based on the evidence.
This meeting that we are holding today is an example of an open and honest exchange – here you are seeking to learn more about the concept of CRT, consider your options and ultimately make a decision about the best path forward for our state through an evaluation of the facts and hearing multiple perspectives. This is the way of democracy.
Conversely, a pursuit of truth and wisdom is not well served by silencing opposing points of view or perspectives – that is the path of tyranny.
As an alternative for your consideration, rather than banning CRT, or some list of related subjects and concepts, instead enact a statute that forces those conversations (if they indeed take place) to have balanced perspectives. Require any classroom discussions or lessons on these issues to also share the critiques and criticisms of CRT that have been offered and to facilitate students making their own informed decisions related to CRT and the counter-ideas to it. Through statute. force any conversations on CRT (should they take place) to occur in an informed free market of ideas.
This alternative approach still allows local school-based councils to make curricular decisions for their schools. And if a school-based council decides to have some class that covers CRT, then they would also have to provide balanced perspectives and opposing viewpoints. This alternative approach also does not put this legislative body in the business of banning or censoring ideas or free speech, nor limiting the free exchange of ideas in the classroom.
So, Madam Chair and members of the committee, I offer (as an idea) an alternative policy approach for your consideration that does not violate our Kentucky values around local control, does not effectively censor classroom discussions, and that does not threaten our public educators. I offer an approach which embraces the American values of tolerance of different points of view and perspectives, and our values around free speech and the importance of the free exchange of ideas that is essential to our republic.
The current prefiled bills related to CRT that are under consideration are patterned after legislation in other states. I urge Kentucky’s legislators not to follow in those authoritarian footsteps and adopt this troubling legislation, but instead to adopt a different and better approach – one which is in keeping with our values as Kentuckians and Americans, and does not debase them.
Thank you, Madam Chair, I look forward to our dialogue and discussion.