Kentucky lawmakers attack LGBTQ school policies in new bills banning drag shows, curriculum

A Kentucky Republican lawmaker has filed wide-ranging legislation that attacks LGBTQ-friendly school policies as part of the recent “parental rights” movement sweeping the nation.

Rep. Josh Calloway’s legislation was joined by two other’ parental rights bills, including one filed by Republican Sen. Max Wise, the former chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft.

Issues in Calloway’s 27-page House Bill 173 touch on public schools’ course material, the use of pronouns, transgender students, the instruction of race, sexual orientation and gender identity, and a ban on drag shows in schools.

On Tuesday, during a meeting on the teacher shortage, some lawmakers on the House Education Committee that Calloway serves on criticized Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass for a perceived “woke” agenda.

“Woke” is a term for actions and policies that call attention to prejudice and discrimination among marginalized communities.

Glass responded that the people who were making pronouns and “woke” issues a priority in education were not educators, but politicians.

The Courier-Journal first reported that during the legislative meeting, Calloway posted on Twitter that Glass thought politicians were politicizing woke agendas. Calloway’s post linked to state guidance for teachers on using student’s pronouns and hinted at the legislation he filed, the newspaper reported.

State Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington
State Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington

Earlier this week, Calloway posted on Facebook he would be filing “legislation to end the indoctrination taking place inside our schools.”

“I refuse to stand idly by and let a school system pervert the minds of our children,” Calloway said in the post.

His bill says parents have “the fundamental right” to make decisions for their child without obstruction or interference from public schools.

The bill said parents must be notified of significant changes to their child’s gender expression, which conflicts with an education department guidance for educators.

A school district can’t compel an educator to use pronouns inconsistent with a child’s enrollment information, including their birth certificate, under the bill. A school district can’t permit a student to be “outside a community standard of dress” within view of a member of the opposite biological sex, under the legislation.

Also under the bill:

  • No instruction time could be spent on partisan political positions or teacher-led political advocacy “with respect to controversial subject matter.”

  • Educators could not display, within view of students, emblems associated with sexual orientation inconsistent with biological sex.

  • Educators could not assert that possessing any set of “immutable characteristics” makes a person responsible for the suffering or adverse experiences experienced by a student or a group of people. That provision appears to speak to conversations involving race.

  • Drag performances, including story hours where drag queens read to students, would be banned.

Calloway, who is from Irvington, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

The General Assembly has an opportunity this session to address some of the challenges the educator workforce is experiencing, Toni Tatman, spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Education said Wednesday in response to the bill.

“The Commissioner urges legislators to increase the total teacher compensation package, increase support and increase respect for our educators,” Tatman said. “This sort of hyper-partisan legislation is a distraction and has a negative impact on our educators. We urge our lawmakers to keep their focus on the educator workforce challenges we face and to pledge their support for their communities and their teachers.”

Nema Brewer, an organizer with KY 120 United AFT, an educator’s group, said her group would fight against any bill “that bullies or singles out the students we serve or the teachers who serve them. We will also protect and defend our LGBTQ staff members from these disgusting and clearly politically motivated attacks.”

“While we are disgusted and disappointed, we are not surprised that the nasty bigotry and hate towards our LGBTQ+ community has now been packaged by the majority party nicely and neatly into a ‘parental rights’ bill,” Brewer said Wednesday.

In a state with one of the highest child abuse rates per capita, not all children are safe at home, Brewer said.

“So to take schools, a safe space where these children are protected and respected as they grow, and to make it into a political machine that harasses children and teachers at the whims of Frankfort, is something we will not tolerate,” she said. “The irony of this bill dropping shortly after a committee meeting regarding the teacher shortage is not lost on us.”

Rep. Shane Baker, R-Somerset, who questioned Glass during Tuesday’s House Education meeting about a policy regarding using a child’s requested pronoun, also filed a parental rights bill — House Bill 177.

That bill bans instruction on gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and sexual relationships.

It also requires school boards to develop policies which promote parental involvement.

State Rep. Shane Baker, R-Somerset
State Rep. Shane Baker, R-Somerset

Wise bill

Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville
Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville

On Wednesday, Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, filed Senate Bill 150 that he said in a news release would strengthen parent engagement in their children’s education. Wise is running for lieutenant governor alongside Kelly Craft, one of 12 Republican candidates for governor.

“Concerns about ‘woke’ ideologies creating a barrier to student education are legitimate. I’ve heard repeatedly that greater emphasis on parental empowerment and engagement on materials and assignments is needed,” Wise said in the news release.

The bill would prohibit the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education from recommending or requiring policies to keep students’ information confidential from their parents, he said. However, school personnel can withhold information if based on prior conduct, they believe the parent would abuse or neglect the child, the bill filed by Wise said.

Another provision of the bill would require a school district to provide parents with two weeks’ prior notice and an opportunity to review materials before human sexuality instruction begins. It would also require an alternate assignment be made available to those students whose parents disapprove instruction, Wise said.

The bill also provides staff and students First Amendment protections by ensuring no school staff members are compelled or required to use pronouns that do not conform to a student’s biological sex, he said.

“Political activists are unnecessarily pressuring our schools, and it’s only distracting and confusing students who are in the classroom simply to learn,” said Wise. “We are not going to tell a teacher they can’t choose to use a student’s preferred pronoun, but we are also not going to force them to, because whether we like it or not, this is an issue socially dividing our nation.”

He criticized Glass’ telling lawmakers Tuesday that educators should adhere to a school district’s policy of using a student’s non-conforming pronoun.

“Imagine the concern of educators and parents who recently heard this message from our top education official,” Wise said. “This type of ‘woke’ thinking permeating our classrooms is certain to worsen recruitment and retention and will only further erode the public’s trust in our public education system.”

Senate Bill 150 is on the agenda for the 11 a.m. Thursday meeting of the Senate Education Committee that Wise serves on.

This article may be updated.