Senate education priority bill heading to floor after sailing through committee

02/16/2017 04:02 PM

FRANKFORT — The Senate’s education reform bill is heading to the floor after sailing through the Senate Education Committee on a unanimous vote Thursday.

Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wilson, would comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that was signed into law in December 2015.

The legislation would gradually alter the state’s education standards, giving the state Department of Education authority to review those standards every six years. It would also allow local school districts to develop teacher evaluation methods and criteria.

Schools identified as failing would be given two to three years to turnaround their numbers before the state intervenes under the bill.

Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said SB 1 would allow the state to gradually turn away from Common Core State Standards. Kentucky was the first state to adopt those standards, which were tied to federal Race to the Top education grants, in 2010.

“(SB 1) coherently aligns K-12 academic standards and state assessments and school accountability that’s going to significantly increase our postsecondary readiness of Kentucky graduates and increases local decision-making and decreases bureaucratic burdens on our educators,” Wilson said in his testimony.

Wilson said the bill has support from groups like the Kentucky Education Association, Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, Kentucky School Boards Association and Gov. Matt Bevin’s office.

The bill passed without a vote against it, and senators praised Wilson’s efforts on Senate Bill 1.

Sen. Steve West, R-Paris, said he had heard from teachers in his district who want lawmakers to remove some of the bureaucratic hurdles they must clear for their jobs.

“I think it relieves a lot of that and frees them up,” he said.

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said the legislation isn’t perfect, “but I have to admit you listened really well on this one.”

“And I really appreciated the way you engaged the process on this, and I think you’ve come up with a reasonable, a pretty good package here,” he said.

Sen. Reginald Thomas voted to send Senate Bill 1 to the upper chamber’s floor, but he urged Wilson to keep in mind the different problems that face rural school districts and urban districts.

He suggested that intervention in failing schools happen sooner than the timeframes laid out in SB 1.

“If we’re talking about waiting two years, you may have a student who’s been in third or fourth grade in a failing school that it may take four or five years for that student to recover, if that student ever recovers,” said Thomas, D-Lexington.

“I just think the sooner that we can intervene and correct these problems, that’s one step forward in trying to achieve the achievement gap, but again, the achievement gap is multilayered.”

SB 1 will be up for a floor vote Friday.

The Senate Education Committee also passed legislation that would allow schools to teach elective Bible literacy courses.

Senate Bill 138 passed on a 9-0 vote. Neal voted “pass.”

Sen. Robin Webb, a Grayson Democrat and sponsor of SB 138, said she took a Bible literacy course in high school without issue, and supporters said teaching the Bible’s literary history would expand students’ understanding of other literary and historical works, such as the U.S. Constitution.

Martin Cothran, senior policy advisor for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, said SB 138 “is about cultural literacy” and said the Bible has “probably been the greatest influence on our history and literature.”

“That cannot be said about many of these other books,” Cothran said, referring to other religious texts.

“The only thing to rival it would probably be Shakespeare, but if you go back and you look at all those great authors of the books that we had to study in school — Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner — they’re riddled with references, just allusions, things that you have to know as background knowledge in order to just understand what you’re reading.”

But some voiced concerns with the legislation, particularly in consideration of other religious works like the Quran.

Kate Miller, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said her group will keep a close eye on Senate Bill 138’s implementation if it becomes law.

“We at the ALCU and our allies will work diligently with students and their parents to make sure they know and understand their rights under the United State and Kentucky constitutions,” she said while testifying against SB 138. “We’ll encourage students to document instances where they feel that their rights have been violated.”

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