Kentucky senator's 'American principles' bill, set to dictate history lessons, advances

FRANKFORT — In Tim Holman’s 23 years in the classroom, he’s always tried to provide his students with “a diverse and balanced instruction.”

He believes Senate Bill 138 intends to codify a balanced approach to history lessons in Kentucky, he told a legislative committee as it prepared to vote on the measure Thursday.

“But, as a teacher of government, I’ve often seen good intentions result in unintended consequences — particularly when it is coming from the top down,” Holman told lawmakers.

For the first time in Kentucky, legislation aimed at addressing outcry over "critical race theory" faced lawmakers for a vote Thursday when the Senate Education Committee voted 9-4 to advance SB 138.

But, in contrast to the months of heated rhetoric surrounding how, or if, race should be discussed in classrooms, they signed off on a bill that doesn't outright ban concepts from the classroom.

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Instead, the measure, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, prioritizes what should be taught, rather than what should not be taught.

Growing concerns around education "has denigrated into hostile monologues, state legislation that is being based on a negative list of 'don'ts' and a media spin that is more cynical than informative," Wise told the committee, which he chairs.

He filed his bill to "unify," Wise said.

Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, speaks about Senate Bill 138,  which addresses how things like American history are taught in classrooms. The bill passed and will go before the full Senate. 
Feb. 17, 2022

Wise's bill allows teachers to conduct lessons on historical events while requiring lessons remain consistent with a set of American principles.

For example, students can learn about slavery, segregation and racial discrimination, but should be taught such events are "contrary to the fundamental American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Blaming racial inequities on the nation's history, the bill says, is "destructive to the unification of our nation." (Racial disparities often are tied to lingering effects of systemic racism, such as redlining.)

Holman, who teaches at duPont Manual High School, praised some of the changes Wise made to the initial bill, many of which came at the request of educators.

In one of the largest changes, the revised bill axed language that would have required teachers who choose to discuss controversial topics to be "impartial."

Related: Educators worry politics will curb push to have honest history classes

Under the new language, districts would still be able to require such lessons, but any instructional materials on current events or controversial public policies would need to be age-appropriate and "relevant, objective, nondiscriminatory, and respectful to the differing perspectives of students."

The new bill also removes some mentions of race. A principle that initially said people can succeed "regardless of race, sex, or socioeconomic status," for example, now says "regardless of one's circumstances."

SB 138 would also prohibit school districts from requiring staff training that "coerces the employee to stereotype any group," clarifying language from the initial bill that prohibited training that "presents any form of race or sex stereotyping."

Brianna Woods and Brennan Eberwine spoke against Senate Bill 138, which addresses how things like American history are taught in classrooms. Feb. 17, 2022

Educators "understand the need for such frank conversations, plus cultural competency and equity training, however there are a growing number of numerous complaints of coercion and perceived indoctrination" in staff trainings, Wise said.

In another change from the initial bill, teachers would be able to offer credit to students for advocating "in a civic space" as long as the student was not forced to take a stance with which they or their parents disagree.

Around two-dozen historical documents and speeches would be added to middle and high school history classes as part of the bill. Most are well-known documents likely already used in classes, such as the Mayflower Compact.

Related: Track priority education bills in Kentucky's 2022 legislative session

Including primary sources will help students "learn to think critically" and "how to think rather than what to think," a press release from the Senate GOP said. History classes, particularly those in high school, already rely heavily on a mix of primary documents and an inquiry-based learning model.

The press release says documents include those recognized by the Ashbrook Center, an Ohio-based group focused on "constitutional self-government" associated with the conservative State Policy Network.

Wise also worked with 1776 Unites, an initiative launched by the nonpartisan Woodson Center in response to The 1619 Project to "celebrate Black excellence" and "reject victimhood culture," according to its website.

Education Commissioner Jason Glass previously called SB 138 "an improvement over previously introduced bills."

Following Thursday's vote, Glass thanked Wise for making changes to the bill, but said he still has concerns about the legislation.

Beanie Geoghegan and Timothy King spoke in support of Senate Bill 138, which addresses how things like American history are taught in classrooms. Feb. 17, 2022

"Our concern remains that the state legislature, through a process that is political by design, is mandating curricular resources," Glass said in a statement Thursday. "This is a significant change from Kentucky’s long-standing tradition of local control over such decisions."

SB 138 is one of four bills facing lawmakers aimed at curbing how race is discussed in Kentucky schools. Two such measures were among the first pieces of legislation prefiled in June ahead of the 2022 legislative session.

Reps. Matt Lockett and Jennifer Decker filed the fourth measure, House Bill 487, last week. On top of barring "bigotry, revisionist history, or critical social justice" topics, the bill outlines who picks the curriculum, how it can be viewed and what the consequences are for those who appear to teach something prohibited from classrooms.

Background: Lawmakers again take aim at 'critical race theory' in new omnibus bill

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines how systems, rather than individuals, perpetuate racial inequities. Over the past year, conservatives have co-opted the phrase to cover a range of diversity and equity initiatives undertaken by schools, including adding more Black history courses and implicit bias trainings.

When asked how he felt about his bill's chances considering those in the House, Wise said bills may need to change in order to pass. It is "impossible to say what legislation looks like from one chamber to another," he said.

The revised bill is a “more thoughtful iteration” than similar bills in the House, Holman said.

But he worries that if “the bills are merged, many of the problematic elements of the House version could be combined with the Senate version.”

“I don’t want to see well-intentioned legislation ultimately harm instruction, harm teachers and ultimately harm kids,” Holman said.

Brianna Woods, a junior at duPont Manual High School, felt the bill would discourage honest conversations about current events.

“Yes, there are multiple sides to every story,” she told lawmakers. “But an undeniable fact is that there is a correct side to most stories.”

“If we always take an objective view toward history, we won’t discover and uncover the deep wrongs our country must right,” she continued.

Brennen Eberwine, one of Woods' classmates in Manual's journalism magnet program, said his "education is not a political tool to be messed with for partisan gain."

“The history I want to be taught is the truth," Eberwine said.

Reach Olivia Krauth at and on Twitter at @oliviakrauth.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: 'Critical race theory' bill gets first vote from Kentucky lawmakers