Column: Elected school board members must have say on curriculum

Jim Waters
Jim Waters
Published: Jul. 16, 2021 at 7:38 AM EDT
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Renewed attention to who controls curriculum decisions is the equivalent of the sun starting to peek through the clouds in the stormy debate over the teaching of race in Kentucky’s public school classrooms.

In well-intentioned but poorly executed efforts to bolster parental engagement and local control of schools, the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990, which is still in force, shifted much of the authority for curriculum, personnel and finances from locally elected school boards to School-Based Decision Making Councils (SBDM).

Unfortunately, KERA mandates the councils’ staffing ratio must be three teachers to only two parents.

The SBDM experiment not only relegates locally elected school board members to the sidelines when it comes to critical decisions about what’s taught in schools, who’s teaching it and how dollars get spent, but it also hobbles parents, preventing them from exerting any real control.

No wonder parents in many schools show little interest in serving on these councils.

Such an approach fails to adhere to democratic practice or contribute to creating true partnership and local control in the education decision-making process.

Will the current brouhaha over the teaching of issues many relate to critical race theory (CRT) be enough to finally cause lawmakers to dump the failed SBDM model and return proper educational authority to citizen- and parent-responsive locally elected school board members?

It was heartening to hear state Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, indicate at a recent meeting of concerned citizens at Glasgow’s Immanuel Baptist Church that significant movement to “empower school boards, especially because of the role SBDM councils currently play,” can be expected during the 2021 legislative session.

Failing to make these changes will leave the door wide open for ideologically driven educators to hijack the curriculum process and inject radical views into Kentucky’s classrooms that reflect neither the values of parents nor their local communities.

For sure, an ideological push is out there.

A leaked syllabus proposed for Highlands High School in Fort Thomas indicated that Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi would be the only texts for a so-called “Social Equity” class.

Robin DiAngelo writes that “white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions.”

She suggests white people should be viewed as a racist collective socialized to “fundamentally hate black people.”

Such inflammatory language is unlikely to contribute to a productive discussion of race in the classroom.

How likely is it that Kendi’s assertions that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination” and “the only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination” would provide a quality learning experience?

How can parents trust their children will enjoy a learning experience which makes them loyal, upstanding and patriotic citizens in a class where teachers begin their syllabus with this statement: “the American Society is historically structured by inequalities based on gender, race, sexual orientation, personal identity, and class?”

The syllabus offered no promise of a balanced discussion where students would learn, for example, about the undeniable progress America has made toward equality, more so than most – if not all – other societies.

Nothing in the syllabus indicates there would be allowance for – or even an attempt at – a robust conversation on complex and complicated issues involving race with differing views being respected in an environment safe for expression.

Hundreds showed up at a meeting of the Highlands school’s SBDM council, which eventually relented and “tabled” the class for next year.

But, this is the wrong scenario.

Such curriculum decisions shouldn’t be solely teacher-controlled.

Rather, they must be made by locally elected school board members, who most certainly will be held accountable were such a class to move forward – whether they had a say or not.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.