Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

School may be out for the summer, but Kentuckians are getting a front row seat to a lesson in political activism from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). Their new guidance regarding SB 150 is causing a commotion, leading some legislators to go back to the drawing board as to how best to address what they see as defiance of legislative intent. 

SB 150 received national attention for banning puberty blockers and surgical intervention of gender dysphoric minors. The bill strengthens parental rights regarding potentially controversial classroom lessons, forces school districts to adopt bathroom and locker rooms consistent with a child’s biological sex, insists upon age-appropriate curriculum related to sexual orientation, and shields teachers from being forced to use student’s preferred pronouns.

The bill’s intent was clear, but KDE attorneys seized on the conjunction “or” and arrived at a novel interpretation. But they jumped over the many “shalls” in the law to get there. Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) Chapter 158.7d1 says “school district shall provide notification to the student’s parents listing each of the health services and mental health services related to human sexuality, contraception, or family planning available at the student’s school and of the parents right to withhold consent…” KRS 158.191.4 says “District personnel shall respect the rights of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of the student…” KRS 158.191.5c says “a local school district shall not require school personnel or students to use pronouns for students that do not conform to that particular students biological sex… .”KRS 158.191.6 requires that prior to well-being questionnaire’s or assessments “the school, district shall provide the student’s parent with access to review the material and shall obtain parental consent.” 

The controversy centers around the conjunction “or” in KRS 158.1415d. That section forbids any sex education in grades K-5. It also forbids any discussion or promotion of gender ideology or sexual orientation in grades 6-12. Between the two is the word “or”. KDE’s attorneys suggest that if schools don’t teach sex-ed in K-5, then they’re free to teach sexual orientation and gender ideology in any grade. Such interpretation turns the entire law on its head. It’s an “absurd” interpretation according to State Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), sponsor of SB 150.

This skirmish over interpretation was elevated after the GOP-led legislature was harshly lectured by KDE Commissioner Jason Glass immediately following the bill’s passage. Glass labeled the bill as “bullying and bigotry” and said to LGBTQ identified students in a statement “We see you, we love you and we will continue to protect you.” Attributing nefarious motives to state leaders is rarely a winning strategy to shape public policy. It is, however, a sure way to raise their ire. And that’s what’s happening now. 

Opponents of SB 150 position the bill as detrimental to LGBTQ identified youth. Supporters of the bill are concerned that LGBTQ activism is divisive and has displaced the academic mission of our public schools. The legislature in bipartisan fashion made clear what they believe is best.

The latest numbers from the Annie E Casey Foundation underscores serious academic deficiency as 69 percent of Kentucky’s fourth graders fail to read at grade level, 79 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math, and nearly one in ten aren’t graduation on time. Kentucky ranks 29th amongst the states in education (2022 data). It’s old news that Kentucky chalked up another dismal year in academic achievement.

There are other problems facing public schools. Last year, there was a 20 percent turnover in Kentucky’s public school teaching ranks. Accomplished high school principal, Randy Adams of Anderson county was one who left after he was forced to use gender-preferred pronouns and told to keep it secret from parents. A teacher’s task is difficult enough. KDE’s imposition of controversial policies that sacrifices some teacher’s consciences, only makes things tougher.  

It’s difficult to comprehend how KDE, a creature of the state legislature, perceives public opposition to SB 150 to be part of its mission. KDE does not have a monopoly what it means to affirm gender confused youth and others who identify with various sexual orientations. One can disagree with a student’s choice of sexual identity and yet support their well-being. In fact, fostering psychological alignment with born biological sex is most helpful to the health and well-being of gender dysphoric youth.

KDE is charged with guiding excellence in public education. When KDE focuses on academic excellence, avoids divisiveness in the classroom, maintains conscience rights of teachers, invites parents into the education formation process, and respects their rights instead of undermine them, they get an A. And all of Kentucky wins.