Sex, gender, parents’ rights: A roundup of Kentucky education legislation

Debates about what’s ‘obscene’ now shift from legislature to school districts


FRANKFORT — The recently-ended legislative session brought education to the forefront of Kentucky politics in an election year for statewide offices. 

Lawmakers approved legislation aimed at tackling a shortage of teachers, though the Republican-controlled General Assembly never considered Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s proposal to provide school employees with 5% pay raises.

The education debates that sparked the most heat had to do with sex and gender and seem likely to continue as Kentuckians elect a governor.

The legislature strengthened parents’ rights to challenge school materials and programs they deem obscene and to know what and when their kids are being taught about sexuality or sexually-transmitted diseases. Students in fifth grade or below can receive no sex education, as a result of Senate Bill 150, which also bans any studies exploring gender identity or sexual orientation. The new law dictates bathroom policies for transgender students in public schools and guarantees the right of school employees to misgender students.

The legislature increased its oversight of the Kentucky Department of Education but stopped short of increasing oversight of teachers who have engaged in sexual misconduct with students. The Senate never voted on a House bill aimed at ensuring schools would be informed of any prior sex-related allegations against teachers applying for a job and the outcome of any investigations.

There is a literacy crisis. There is an educator shortage crisis. There is a sustainable education funding crisis. These issues existed before 2020 but were made exponentially worse because of Covid. They’re not quick fixes.

– Josh Shoulta, Kentucky School Boards Association, communications director

The debate about what’s appropriate for young eyes seems likely to shift now to local school districts. Under newly enacted Senate Bill 5, school boards could face a tight deadline to hear complaints about materials, programs or events that parents contend “appeal to the prurient interest in sex” or are “patently offensive to prevailing standards regarding what is suitable for minors.”

This legislature’s education focus — and the likely shift to the local level — fit into a trend that stretches beyond Kentucky, according to Josh Shoulta, director of communications for the Kentucky School Boards Association. An “increased national attention on public education coincided with the pandemic” filtered to the state and local levels, he wrote in an email. An example is increased attendance at local school board meetings. 

“A large share of that attention is being driven by how lawmakers have addressed controversial issues; masking and other Covid policies, CRT (critical race theory), challenging books and curriculum, policies regarding LGBTQ students, parents’ rights, etc.,” Shoulta said.

But the challenges facing schools are bigger than just those issues, he added.

“The spotlight on education and prescribed policy solutions, however, can also be attributed to a system in crisis. Not far removed from the pandemic, there is significant recovery ahead of us. There is a literacy crisis. There is an educator shortage crisis. There is a sustainable education funding crisis. These issues existed before 2020 but were made exponentially worse because of Covid. They’re not quick fixes.”

Here is the status of some education bills at the end of the 2023 legislative session: 

Transgender minors

 Students gathered at the Capitol to protest SB 150. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Originally introduced by Sen. Max Wise, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft’s running mate, as legislation that would prevent the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) from issuing guidance on using trans students’ pronouns and requiring schools to disclose mental health services students receive, Senate Bill 150 evolved to include provisions from House Bill 470 banning gender-affirming medical care for trans minors.

The controversial guidance has since been removed from the KDE’s website. 

Beshear vetoed SB 150, but the General Assembly overrode the veto in the final days of session. 

Education Commissioner Jason Glass issued a statement after legislators passed the bill, decrying it as “sweeping and harmful” and vowing that KDE would host a fall summit “in support of LGBTQIA+ people and youth.”

Some Republicans criticized Glass’ comments, including House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade, R-Stanford, and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican candidate for governor. 

 Education Commissioner Jason Glass addressed the House Education Committee. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by McKenna Horsley)

Education commissioner

Also in response to criticism of Glass, Senate Bill 107 subjects the appointment and re-appointment of the Kentucky education commissioner to Senate confirmation. 

Beshear vetoed the bill, saying it “politicizes” the hiring process of the education commissioner. The General Assembly overrode the veto. 

The commissioner is selected by the Kentucky Board of Education. Its members are confirmed by the Senate. 

Lu Young, chair of the Kentucky Board of Education, issued a statement during the session saying the bill “would reverse the progress we have made during the past three decades and return the state to a time when the leadership of Kentucky’s public schools was determined by political capital and connections, not professional experience.”

After Beshear’s veto, sponsor Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, issued a statement saying, “The Governor would like to keep as much control as possible over the Kentucky Department of Education to continue indoctrinating students and causing gender confusion rather than caring for their ability to read, write, and learn arithmetic. Given the Governor’s and current commissioner’s abysmal failure regarding Kentucky students’ learning outcomes, we must ensure legislative oversight and confirmation of the next education commissioner.” 

Attack on teachers unions?

Public school teachers protesting in Kentucky in 2018
 Kentucky public school teachers rallied at the Kentucky Capitol in April 2018. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The Kentucky Education Association decried Senate Bill 7 as an attack on educators. The new law will stop automatic payroll deductions for members’ dues for multiple types of public employee unions with the exception of police and firefighter organizations which were exempted.

“Instead of focusing on the real issues impacting our public schools, such as the educator shortage, professional pay, and student learning conditions, the General Assembly turned its attention to trying to weaken public sector unions under the guise of ‘the administration of payroll systems,’” said KEA president Eddie Campbell. 

“Senate Bill 7 is clearly not about the administration of payroll systems. It’s also not about protecting public school students, public educators, or public school resources. But it is very obviously about politicians protecting themselves from accountability for bad policies and misdirected priorities.” 

In his veto message, Beshear, who received support from teachers and labor in his first race for governor, said the bill was “an attack on unions and teacher associations that support and protect hard working Kentucky families.” The General Assembly overrode the veto. 

Sponsor Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, said the bill was necessary to stop the collection of political contributions from union members.  

Complaint process for ‘obscene’ books, programs

 Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, sponsored SB 5 (Photo by LRC Public Information)

Legislation that requires local school boards to create complaint processes about materials and programs that are “harmful to minors” became law without Beshear’s signature

Supporters of Senate Bill 5 said it would protect children from obscene materials in the classroom, but critics said it could lead to book banning.

The Kentucky Department of Education must create a model complaint process meeting the new mandates by May 1. School boards must adopt their local policy by July 1. 

Shoulta said some Kentucky school districts already have policies to address controversial issues or grievances from community members. The bill goes further by enshrining requirements for resolving parents’ complaints.

Written complaints are made to the school principal, who must review them within seven days. Within 10 days, the principal notifies the person who submitted the complaint of the decisions and steps to be taken. To appeal the principal’s decision, the complainant may contact the local school board. Within 30 days, the board must review the complaint and hold a public meeting to make a decision. Within 15 business days of the decision, board members’ votes must be published on the school board’s website and in the local newspaper of record.

KSBA will work with KDE and school districts in the weeks ahead to prepare guidance on or before May 1 and ensure school boards have appropriate policies by July 1, Shoulta added.

Response to teachers shortage

Beshear signed the Republican-backed response to Kentucky’s teacher shortage. The primary sponsor of House Bill 319, Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, has said it won’t solve all parts of the problem but is the first step in doing so and can be built upon in later legislative sessions.

The bill seeks to recruit more public school teachers and increase retention while not making large appropriations during a non-budget year legislative session. 

 Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, testifies in committee. (Photo by LRC Public Information)

It establishes interstate licensing of teachers to allow teachers certified in other states to teach in Kentucky; requires the Kentucky Department of Education to update its online job posting system, the Kentucky Educator Placement Service System; removes a limit on state-funded teacher scholarships and allows amounts to be determined by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority based on funds available; and directs a review of alternative teacher certification pathways. 

The Kentucky Association of School Administrators supported Tipton’s bill. 

Beshear-supported House Bill 88, which included a 5% pay raise for every public school educator and universal pre-kindergarten, did not move out of a House committee this session. It was sponsored by House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort. 

Sexual misconduct by teachers

A piece of legislation aimed at making it more difficult for teachers found responsible for sexual misconduct to begin working in a different school district passed the House, but did not receive a floor vote in the Senate.

Tipton, who is also the sponsor of House Bill 288, has said it balanced protecting Kentucky students who may face sexual abuse in schools with due process in investigations. He said he filed the bill in response to reporting by the Lexington Herald-Leader which showed sexual misconduct was the most common reason Kentucky teachers had their licenses revoked or suspended between 2016 to 2021.

Classroom discipline

Beshear signed House Bill 538, which aims to address issues teachers face with disciplining students, sponsor Rep. Timmy Truett, R-McKee, has said. 

Truett told the Senate Education Committee that the bill would create other options for school administrators responding to students who disrupt and threaten the safety of others in the classroom. 

To discipline such students, local districts can adopt alternative programs, such as virtual learning at home or in another school setting, in lieu of expelling them. School boards must expel students for at least 12 months if they make threats that pose a danger to staff or other students.

Students who are removed from a classroom three times within 30 days would be “chronically disruptive.” They could be suspended.  

Religious freedom

Beshear signed into law House Bill 547 which sponsors say is necessary to protect public school employees’ First Amendment right to religious freedom.

The new law protects school district employees who express their faith or sponsor student religious activities from coercion by government officials, sponsor Rep. Chris Fugate, R-Chavies, told the Senate Education Committee. 

He said the bill stems from a situation in Washington where a high school football coach was fired after leading his team in prayers on the field after games. The coach, Joseph Kennedy, was recently reinstated after the U. S. Supreme Court ruled his praying was protected by the First Amendment.

 Leading a rally in support of Senate Bill 150 were, from left, David Walls, Family Foundation executive director; Rep. Chris Fugate, R-Chavies; Rep. Jennifer Decker, R-Waddy; Sen. Johnnie Turner, R-Harlan. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Top photo: (left to right) Rep. Lamin Swann, D-Lexington, and Rep. Sarah Stalker, D-Louisville, confer on the House floor. (LRC PIO)