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Expansive Education Reform Package Wins Senate Approval

Josh James

The Kentucky Senate has agreed to a major education bill - it's leading priority for the 2016 session.

The close to 90-page package designed to realign the state's teaching and testing standards won approval of one half of the General Assembly Wednesday, but the House has yet to sink its teeth into the wide-reaching measure.

All but two Republicans signed on to the GOP-led Senate Bill 1, which hands more control back to local school districts on teacher evaluation and struggling schools while creating a new hierarchy for reviewing standards. Sen. David Givens told his colleagues last year's passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act essentially paved the way.

"The federal government, through the changes they made this summer was ESSA, set us on a path to have to change our current KDE accountability system," he argued. "So not only is the timing right, the pressure is there to make these changes."

Mounting a united front against the bill, Senate Democrats backed an ill-fated amendment by Sen. Gerald Neal to halt the process and direct the state Dept. of Education to study the issue further. Lexington Sen. Reggie Thomas worried aloud about the bill's proposed an academic standards review committee, which would include lawmakers from both chambers and gubernatorial appointees.

"It could lead to, and will probably lead to, politicians controlling the content of what our students learn. That is very dangerous and a real threat to democracy," Thomas said.

Senate President Robert Stivers later dismissed those fears as completely unfounded, noting that such boards are hardly unorthodox.

"We appoint people to all sorts of oversight boards, ethics boards. The governor appoints them to the oversight boards. We have confirmation of all types of individuals, so that's such a flawed argument. It has not relevance in this," he told reporters.

But Is It Art (Unfriendly)?

One SB1 provision drawing regular attacks from Democrats allows electives in foreign language, vocational studies, or computer science to satisfy arts requirements if they contain design elements.

"I cannot sit here and say in good conscience that it equates to band or chorus, or if a student wants to take artistic drawing. And this bill threatens the elimination of those latter three subjects," Thomas charged, while explaining his no vote.

Stivers took issue with that line of thinking, wondering aloud whether opponents have fully read the legislation. The Manchester Republican defended the bill's treatment of arts programs, saying, "There are components in there to address all the issues related to the arts. It was not purposefully. It's just a different mechanism than what there is today."

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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