Sadly, Kentucky gets its first ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill as legislators target schools | Opinion

Late last year, the Kentucky Supreme Court made it quite clear that our state constitution would never allow the diversion of public money from public schools to private ones through tax credit schemes.

So the school choice advocates have come up with Plan B, a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to use public school funding on private schools. In this, they have a sincere and earnest champion, Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington, who has sponsored a bill that he says will put a plan in front of voters to allow all parents to get what they want in education.

To hear Calloway and co-sponsor Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, who appeared with him at a press conference on House Bill 174, the legislature is as dedicated to school choice as the voters of Kentucky, and in Nemes’ words, “this is going to happen.”

They painted a picture in which the General Assembly would support both public and private schools, not starving one to feed the other, but allowing everyone to get everything they need in their educational choices for free, or close to it. How this would all be paid for is not so clear, especially as we move forward on erasing income tax revenues. I would have thought that after two Republican constitutional amendments lost last fall, the GOP would be leery of more, but they think this is still a winner, especially when it promises all things to all people.

But speaking of unicorns and puppies and rainbows, especially the rainbows, Calloway has also filed House Bill 173, which makes it a little more clear exactly how he feels about public schools and what goes on there. As the Courier Journal’s Joe Sonka described it, it’s a 2023 Culture War Gumbo that takes every invented right wing education controversy— drag shows, pronouns, dirty library books, bathroom bills, CRT, COVID vaccinations — and sautes them in the roux known as “parents rights.”

“COVID really opened people’s eyes to things that were going on,” Calloway told me on Wednesday after the press conference. “I think every piece (of the 27-page bill) is important ... it’s important to parents in Kentucky.”

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

Basically, House Bill 173 would put everything except compulsory attendance rules under parental directive: There is, the bill says, a “high duty and right to nurture and direct their children’s destiny, including their upbringing and education; mental, emotional, and physical health care; and moral and religious development.”

Masks and COVID vaccination requirements would also be banned. The school would have to report if a child changed pronouns or gender identity. And the bill does some pretty wild projecting, including the prohibition of storing students’ DNA.

The bill would also prohibit teachers in grades K-8 from discussing or providing instruction “on the topics of sexual orientation, sexual preference, or gender expression inconsistent with biological sex.” It’s our very own Don’t Say Gay bill! Who says Florida gets to have all the fun?

On curriculum under this bill, if a parent disagreed with a history teacher that the Civil War was fought over slavery, they could complain to the school board. But when I brought that example up with Calloway, he said it was more about getting books like “Gender/Queer” out of school libraries or protecting kids from drag shows. When I asked him if any public schools in Kentucky had hosted drag shows, he cited a case in Missouri, where a group of middle school children were taken to a city event that ended with a drag show.

“Just because something has not happened in Kentucky yet does not mean we should not address it,” Calloway said. “We want to lead in presenting what we want for our children in the state of Kentucky.”

Later in the day, Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, who is Kelly Craft’s running mate, just happened to drop the Senate version of the bill, which appears to be much less wild-eyed than Calloway’s.

The very nice and earnest Mr. Calloway may believe these things are happening or will, which is better than using them as cynical political props, as I’m afraid Wise is doing. But they are bad bills on many levels and it will only worsen Kentucky’s teacher shortage, which was discussed at length on Tuesday. The lack of respect for teachers was one answer, the low pay, another, and let me tell you, no one gets paid enough to deal with the kind of garbage that would be inflicted on them by this legislation.

Then there’s the cost to children, as was pointed out by Sen. Karen Berg after Wise announced his bill on the Senate floor. Berg tragically lost her trans son to suicide late last year, and she asked her Senate colleagues to avoid politicizing issues that are “literally killing our children.”

I’m sure they will ignore her, because what is one mother’s pain to political hay?

Wise said Wednesday that his bill was in reaction to Education Commissioner Jason Glass, who took a bold stand at that meeting and declared: “The people who are making pronouns and transgender issues and woke issues a priority in our education are politicians. They are not the things that are in our schools,” Glass said.

Turns out he’s right.