Fix SB 1: Don’t Make Teaching A Crime

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As we enter the last days of the 2022 General Assembly, Brigitte Blom has just released this statement of major Prichard Committee concern:

Senate Bill 1 exposes educators and other Kentuckians to jail terms, fines, loss of teaching eligibility, and disqualification from serving on school boards. We don’t think the bill’s sponsors intended to do that, and we call on the General Assembly to remove those penalties before they adjourn on Thursday. There may be a way to do that by amending a current bill, or it can be done by upholding the Governor’s veto. Teaching should not be criminalized.

This post explains the problem and two ways it can be fixed. In a nutshell, the problem is how language in SB 1 would connect to language in another statute that creates severe penalties for educators and those who step up to serve on school boards.

What’s in Senate Bill 1

Senate Bill 1 does multiple things, and the part that matters here comes as an addition to KRS 161.164. That statute currently has four sections setting rules for school board campaigns and political activity. The addition would add three more sections, saying this:

(5) Any instruction or instructional materials on current, controversial topics related to public policy or social affairs provided to public school or public charter school students, regardless of whether the individual that provides the instruction is employed by the local school district or public charter school, shall be:

(a) Within the range of knowledge, understanding, age, and maturity of the students receiving the instruction; and

(b) Relevant, objective, nondiscriminatory, and respectful to the differing perspectives of students.

(6) An employee of a public school district or public charter school shall not violate a student’s first amendment rights by requiring or incentivizing a student to advocate in a civic space on behalf of a perspective with which the student or the parent or guardian of a minor student does not agree.

(7) An employee of a local school district or public charter school shall not be required to engage in training, orientation, or therapy that coerces the employee to stereotype any group.

Connecting the other statute

KRS 161.164 turns out to be connected to another statute, KRS 161.990. The first two sections of KRS 161.990 say this:

(1) Any person who violates any provisions of KRS 161.164 shall be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. Any school board candidate or school board member who willfully violates any provision of KRS 161.164 shall also be disqualified from holding the office of school board member.

(2) Any teacher or employee of a district who willfully violates any provision of KRS 161.164 shall be ineligible for employment in the common schools for a period of five (5) years.

Class A misdemeanors can lead to jail terms and fines. That may be appropriate for those who violate campaign finance rules and abuse political power, but it is wildly inappropriate as a consequence for choices about classroom teaching.

Options for fixing the problem

One way to fix this would be to amend KRS 161.990, so that it does not apply to the three new rules. That could be done by adding the text shown in underlined bold below.

(1) Any person who violates any provisions of KRS 161.164 (1)-(4) shall be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. Any school board candidate or school board member who willfully violates any provision of KRS 161.164 (1)-(4) shall also be disqualified from holding the office of school board member.

(2) Any teacher or employee of a district who willfully violates any provision of KRS 161.164 (1)-(4) shall be ineligible for employment in the common schools for a period of five (5) years.

Another way to do it would be to sustain the Governor’s veto, which would allow schools to function without arrest threats this year and allow legislators to consider less harmful approaches next year.

The 2022 regular session ends on April 14, just two days from now. Time is tight to fix this, but it can be done. We urge leaders in both chambers to make a remedy happen. Kentucky teachers and school board members should not be asked to work under this kind of threat.

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Written by Susan Perkins Weston of the Prichard Committee, and cross-posted from their site.

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