Bible course for high school students advances in Kentucky Senate

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green.
Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green. Legislative Research Commission

A state Senate committee Thursday approved legislation creating an elective high school Bible literacy course. It also approved a reform bill that would ultimately repeal academic standards based on the controversial Common Core.

The committee approved Senate Bill 138, which would create an elective social studies class on the Bible.

Sponsored by state Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, its intent is to teach students biblical content, characters and narratives that help with understanding today’s society and culture, including literature, art, music, and public policy.

“You would be remiss if you didn't include the Bible’s impact on the law and the history of our country and where we are in the world today,” Webb told the Herald-Leader.

The course would have to follow all federal and state laws in maintaining religious neutrality and accommodating diverse religious views of students. The course could not endorse or show disfavor toward any particular religion, religious perspective or faith.

A similar bill was passed in the Senate in 2016 but failed in the state House of Representatives.

The Kentucky Council of Churches opposes the bill, in part out of concern that public school teachers may not be in the best role to teach religious education.

Kate Miller, advocacy director of the ACLU of Kentucky, testified against the bill saying if passed, that group will work with students and parents so they understand their rights under the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions.

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, passed on the vote, but all other lawmakers on the panel voted for it.

The committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 1. The public education bill would, among several measures, establish a new process for intervening in low-performing schools as well as establish a new process for reviewing classroom academic standards.

A national school reform group recently found that Kentucky’s efforts to turn around low-performing schools are among the most effective in the nation.

But under Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, the local district — not the state — would oversee turnaround efforts at schools after an audit by an outside group. The state would have to approve the group, Wilson said.

If there was not improvement after two years, the state would step in with a more rigorous intervention.

Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, voted for the bill but said he wanted quicker intervention by the state.

Under the bill, revisions would be made to the Kentucky academic standards in 2017-18 and every six years after that. Teams of educators from public schools and higher education would recommend changes with suggestions from citizens.

The current standards will stay in place until they are revised on a staggered basis. “It will repeal the Common Core, but not until those standards are rolled out in a staggered fashion,” Wilson said.

Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core standards and subsequently incorporated them into the Kentucky academic standards. Those standards have undergone other revisions. They define what Kentucky students should learn at each grade level in order to graduate ready for college and careers. How the standards are taught is decided by local schools.

The Common Core standards were developed in 2009 to improve education in the United States.

The standards came under criticism after President Obama’s education department endorsed them and began tying some federal dollars to a adoption of them.

Also under Senate Bill 1, a new assessment system would still rate schools but would not use a single numerical score that ranks schools against each other.

Under one provision in the bill, local districts would establish their own evaluation systems for teachers, principals and other staff aligned with a statewide framework. Evaluation results would not be reported to the state education department.

Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, an educators group, said KEA supported Senate Bill 1.

Winkler said Wilson had worked to make “common sense reforms which are needed to keep us moving forward and make good decisions for our kids.”

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said Wilson's bill “respects the work of more than 300 people who have been working to develop our new accountability system.”

“The bill allows Kentuckians to really own our new system,” Pruitt said.

Both bills now go to the full state Senate.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears