Max Wise’s bill to curb ‘woke agenda’ sparks plea for compassion from Senate colleague

Published 2:38 pm Thursday, February 9, 2023

By McKenna Horsley

Kentucky Lantern

Republican Kelly Craft’s running mate in the Kentucky governor’s race took her anti-woke crusade to the Senate floor Wednesday, drawing a plea from a colleague to “avoid politicizing issues that are literally killing our children.”

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Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, begged her colleagues to think about “who you’re putting in the center of this fight.” Berg’s son, who was transgender, committed suicide in December.

Berg spoke after Wise, R-Campbellsville, criticized what he called the “woke agenda” in the Kentucky Department of Education and its recent guidance on how to support LGBTQI+ students and their families. His remarks garnered some applause.

Wise introduced Senate Bill 150 which, among other things, would ban any Education Department guidance on students’ preferred names. A news release from the Senate majority office said SB 150  “provides staff and students First Amendment protections by ensuring nobody is compelled or required to use pronouns that do not conform to a student’s biological sex.”

On the Senate floor, Wise said, “Now these may seem like very simple ideas, but in a day and age where our own commissioner of education says that a teacher can be fired for not referring to a student as a furry, it’s much needed legislation in today’s time.”

Questioned later by reporters, Wise said he had been speaking hypothetically and had no knowledge of Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass ever saying anything about a furry. According to Wikipedia, furry fandom is a subculture interested in anthropomorphic animal characters.

Glass issued a statement later Wednesday, saying: “Sen. Wise’s statement is false and ridiculous. It is hurtful statements like these that have a negative impact on not just our students, but our educator workforce. Putting forth policies aimed at cruelty and harm toward marginalized groups has no place in our democracy.”

If passed into law, Wise’s bill would prohibit the Department of Education and state Board of Education from “recommending or requiring policies to keep minor students’ information confidential from their parents,” the  Senate majority news release said. A school district would have to notify parents about the health and mental health services students are offered or seek at school.

School districts would also be required to give parents a two-week notice about instruction or school courses on human sexuality as well as an opportunity to review accompanying materials. If parents disapprove of an assignment, the bill would require that an alternative assignment be given to the student.

Berg asserted that teachers would be uncomfortable telling parents a child is gay or trans if the parents were unaware, in part because of concerns for the child’s safety. She suggested that disrespecting students’ name preferences could be a form of bullying and warned against “putting children in the middle of a political fight between some ostensible right and some ostensible woke culture when most of us are simply trying to do the best for the most.”

Berg’s son, Henry Berg-Bousseau, 24, died by suicide in December. He had recently been promoted at the Human Rights Campaign, a nationwide LGBTQ advocacy and lobbying organization, and worked with the statewide LGBTQ rights advocacy group Fairness Campaign as a high school student.

At the time, Sen. Berg issued a statement  saying, in part, “As a mother of a transgender son, I gave my whole heart trying to protect my child from a world where some people and especially some politicians intentionally continued to believe that marginalizing my child was OK simply because of who he was.”

Wise, who was chairman of the Senate Education Committee from 2019 until recently, told reporters that the bill is not targeting a certain lifestyle but is about “empowering parents.”

“Our schools should be focused on teaching students math, science, history, life skills, and leave it to the parents to engage their children with deeply personal discussions about their lives, but do it at home,” said Wise.

Wise’s bill and remarks come days after gubernatorial candidate Craft  vowed to dismantle the Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education. In a statement, she accused both of “pushing woke agendas in our schools.”

Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson Toni Konz Tatman in an email said:  “In Commissioner’s Glass’ testimony to the House Education Committee on Tuesday, he stated if a teacher could not follow a district’s guidelines, they should find employment elsewhere. This is the same advice that applies to any employee in any industry.

“The Kentucky Department of Education does not have authority to set curriculum, select instructional materials or mandate guidelines for how districts respond to students who are LGBTQI+, but we are aware that these are situations facing schools and educators on a daily basis.

“It is necessary that the department be able to provide ongoing support and guidance to all Kentucky school districts as they face situations that are unique to their local context.

“The guidance produced by KDE gives administrators and educators information to consider when a district is devising its own policy, but this is guidance only. KDE’s guidance on this issue is rooted in evidence-based best practices, which are cited directly in the document and is designed to promote the health and safety of all students.”