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DEI efforts in Kentucky K-12 schools at risk under proposed legislation

A close up photo of a man speaking into a microphone in a committee room. He is wearing reading glasses. An American Flag is in the background.
Legislative Research Commission
/
Kentucky State Government
Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield.

A bill filed by Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith seeks to outlaw school efforts aimed at fostering “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

A Kentucky Republican lawmaker wants to rid the public K-12 system of some programs used to make schools more inclusive of people of color, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups.

Sen. Stephen Meredith of Leitchfield filed Senate Bill 93 Monday. The measure contains language from laws and regulations passed in Florida and Texas aimed at rooting out diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in higher education institutions.

SB 93 would prohibit Kentucky’s K-12 public schools from advocating for, or spending resources or funds on “diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.”

The measure defines “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging” as “any program, activity, instruction or policy that classifies individuals on the basis of race, color, sex national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation and promotes differential or preferential treatment of individuals on the basis of such classification.”

Meredith said he filed the bill because of federal grants he’s seen go to support DEI initiatives in Kentucky schools over the past several years.

“What happens at the end of this grant?” Meredith said in an interview. “Now Kentucky taxpayers are going to have to support that activity, and we have so many other needs. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not a priority.”

Supporters of DEI efforts say they are necessary to make students and staff feel welcome in Kentucky schools and close decades-long achievement gaps between marginalized student groups and their more socioeconomically advantaged peers. Those efforts include searching for more staff of color, culturally inclusive teaching and training for teachers and staff on implicit racial and cultural biases.

Meredith’s bill would specifically prohibit school districts from attempting to “advantage” or “disadvantage” an individual on the basis of race or gender or “equalize or increase outcomes, participation, or representation as compared to other individuals or groups.”

Public school employees would also be prohibited from promoting “political or social activism” in their official capacity. Under the measure, this means public school districts could not expend resources on any activity “organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action or policy.”

It also prevents public school resources from being spent on “any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues.” Social issues are defined as topics that “polarize” or “divide” society.

The measure also removes the relatively recent law that promotes trauma-informed approaches in schools, including the trauma and implicit bias training requirement for school resource officers. The General Assembly added the trauma-informed support for public schools as a part of the 2019 School Safety and Resiliency Act, which was passed in response to the 2018 fatal shooting at Marshall County High School.

Meredith’s bill comes as initiatives meant to make schools and workplaces more inclusive have come under attack from some conservatives as “race or sex scapegoating.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Tichenor of Smithfield said she is cosponsoring the legislation because she opposes DEI altogether. She said DEI “has become more about division, and exclusivity and separating groups.”

In an emailed statement opposing the legislation, ACLU of Kentucky Executive Director Amber Duke said the bill was “part of an anti-Black, anti-brown, anti-LGBTQ backlash to efforts to ensure ALL students have educational opportunities.”

“Once again, the only ‘divisive concepts’ in the Commonwealth are those being promoted by the Kentucky General Assembly,” Duke’s statement reads.

House Education Committee Chair James Tipton, a Republican from Taylorsville, said he “would not be surprised” to see bills similar to SB 93 filed in the House.

Tipton said he thought there needed to be a “constructive conversation” about DEI, and that some of the issues people have with those efforts stem from “different interpretations” of what DEI means.

“When you define ‘equity,’ in some people's minds, they define ‘equity’ as trying to guarantee equal outcomes. Me, personally, I believe equity is about trying to provide equal opportunities,” he said.

The discussions around DEI are the latest battle in the “culture wars” conservatives are fighting with progressives in public schools. In 2022, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law aimed at limiting classroom discussions about the ongoing impacts of systemic racism. That was part of a wave of conservative legislation targeting so-called “critical race theory.”

Stu Johnson contributed to this report.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.