Recently there has been a backlash against what scholars call “critical race theory,” both in Kentucky and nationally. Parents are showing up at Board of Education meetings to complain about what’s being taught in their child’s classroom, claiming that certain content is inappropriate and is making their child “uncomfortable.” Kentucky currently has two proposed bills in the pipeline (HR 60 and HR 69), both of which would essentially ban the teaching of any content in K-12 public schools that would lead to conversations about race, sex, or religion. Arguments abound about the pros and cons of this legislation. Whether you favor these bills or oppose them, however, may be beside the point, because the bottom line is that if these bills pass, they could spell disaster for Kentucky’s already strapped economy.
In a recent report titled Kentucky’s Workforce Crisis, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce documents that as of June 2021, Kentucky had the third lowest workforce participation in the nation. Moreover, there is a huge gap between urban and rural counties. One contributing factor to this crisis is that more jobs are requiring skills beyond a high school degree, which is causing many workers to drop out of the workforce altogether because of lack of education. Low employment contributes not only to the high poverty rate in Kentucky, but also to the social and emotional health of its citizens (think – opioid crisis). Competing in a global marketplace requires an educated citizenry.
When I began teaching in higher education in the 1990s, it was truly an exciting time. The Kentucky Education Reform Act had just been launched, and our state was recognized as a national leader in education. Teachers were using innovative teaching strategies and students were motivated to learn. Then came repressive federal accountability guidelines and high stakes testing, and education became reduced to “teaching to the test.”
The proposed legislation would further erode the quality of education in Kentucky by severely limiting what can and cannot be taught in our public schools. Would teachers be allowed to teach about the events leading up to the Civil War? Reconstruction? The Holocaust? Would they get in trouble if they had their students reading classic literature such as The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and even Shakespeare’s Othello? Would students be able to learn about world cultures when discussions would inevitably require an examination of their religions?
In their report, the Kentucky Chamber warns that “[l]awmakers in Kentucky should avoid pursuing any legislative measure that could create misperceptions of the Commonwealth as unwelcoming or intolerant” (p. 25). Would anti-CRT legislation have this effect? Consider that a quality education is a key factor in attracting businesses to our state. It’s also important to note that Kentucky is 5th in the nation in “brain drain.” Our graduates are leaving our state for work and/or higher learning, and are not coming back.
As we strive to attract entrepreneurs and to retain our brightest students, Kentucky can ill afford to be perceived as unwelcoming or as having an inferior educational system. Our students need to be encouraged to think critically and to consider diverse perspectives. We simply cannot afford to “dumb-down” our schools. Just as we need to embrace innovative economic solutions, let us embrace innovative education solutions—solutions that will once again allow us to be a national leader in education.
Written by Dr. Rebecca Powell. Dr. Powell is a former elementary teacher and Professor of Education at Georgetown College.
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