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Special session should focus on less – and better – government

Editor’s Note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being published by newspapers statewide. (The column, which was first published on Sept. 2 – before the special legislative session – appears in its original form.)

Legislators preparing to return to Frankfort to deal with the state’s battle against COVID-19 and its nasty variants would do well to keep in mind Henry David Thoreau’s quote regarding the quantity of governance: “That government is best which governs the least.”

They also, however, would be wise to consider Thomas Jefferson’s gem that “the government closest to the people serves the people best.”

Lawmakers should consider the importance of a governing entity’s proximity to its citizens and empower accordingly, considering the closer government is to its constituents, the better the quality of governance.

It is, our nation’s founders rightly reasoned, easier for citizens to hold their representatives accountable in state capitols than in far-away Washington – and much more likely they will do so.

The same principle holds true within our geographically vast commonwealth.

We could do – and have done – worse than applying the same type of thinking to responding to this pandemic and offering the decision-making power at the most local of levels, including right down to individual parents and families – where the brunt of such decisions is felt the most.

It’s what liberty really is all about.

Considering how differently the virus affects not only diverse communities but various individual schools within them, legislators must do better than just punting tough decisions to local entities like school boards.

Policymakers instead should actively search for ways to give a lion’s share of the control to parents themselves regarding whether, for example, their children wear masks to schools.

Since this, however, would likely be too Thoreau-like for some politicians, another worthy approach is to allow individual schools to determine how they will navigate through COVID-19.

This could address the concerns of many parents in the commonwealth’s larger school districts, particularly in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), where most of the school board members are incumbents who seem to care most about pleasing teachers-union bosses.

Empowering each local school to determine its own policies regarding everything from masking to distancing to scheduling to busing and even to sports and extracurricular activities could ensure more parental input, better meet specific needs of students in that school and provide a much-more effective response to the coronavirus in general, all while avoiding diminishing children’s educational experience.

Forcing blanket policies on entire districts – especially large ones like JCPS – could do more harm than good.

It would be unnecessarily harmful, for instance, to force schools without serious COVID-19 problems to pile on online-learning – especially if they’re in rural or lower-income areas like west Louisville, where many kids don’t have access to quality internet service or decent computers.

Legislators could also greatly help parents by limiting how far schools or districts can go.

Such limits could preclude local officials, including school board members, from using their newfound policy power to go beyond the need by, for example, forcing young children to wear masks while running laps during physical education classes, which has actually occurred in JCPS.

Establishing parameters triggering local use of NTI beyond the 10 days now allowed based on what’s happening locally rather than setting a blanket statewide rule in Kentucky would ensure decisions better fit the real needs of local schools and their students.

It could also keep the focus on educating children safely by limiting the power of those who want to lock down schools indefinitely by adding multitudes of unnecessary and ineffective online-learning-only days.

The more local decisions become, the easier it is for parents and concerned citizens to hold the decision-makers accountable.

School officials who know they’re likely to bump into parents of kids forced to wear masks in gym class at the grocery store may think twice before they issue such dubious mandates.

Such considerations can leverage the potential of better – and appropriately less – government in the end.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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