The Kentucky Department of Education announced Monday it will partner with Taiwan’s Ministry of Education in an effort to expand Chinese language instruction in Kentucky’s classrooms.

“We know that it can be difficult for our schools and districts to find qualified world language instructors,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass said in a news release. “This new agreement with the Ministry of Education in Taiwan will help us make sure more Kentucky students have the opportunity to expand their world and their options in the future by learning a language that is in high demand.”

The partnership will bring Taiwanese teachers to Kentucky each year to teach under local contracts in a school district. In exchange, the Kentucky Department of Education will promote the Taiwan Foreign English Teacher Program, which encourages foreigners to teach English in Taiwan to improve students’ overall proficiency there.

According to KDE, Kentucky is the first U.S. state to sign on after the launch of the State Department’s 2020 U.S. Taiwan Education Initiative, which aims to expand “access to Chinese and English language instruction, while safeguarding academic and intellectual freedom,” the department’s release said.

In the bigger picture: the move is part of a broader soft power push by Taiwan, which hopes to muscle out China’s remaining Confucius Institutes.

Called CIs, the Chinese language and cultural education programs have largely fallen out of favor in recent years as tensions with China have heated up.

Critics have raised concerns about academic freedom and the ability to discuss certain topics that are off-limits in China, while also contending the institutes give the Chinese government a front for spying on the U.S. college campuses that host them.

In 2019, Western Kentucky University announced it was cutting ties with its Confucius Institute, which occupied a building the university specifically constructed as part of a controversial agreement that guaranteed “free and exclusive use of the Model Confucius Institute for 50 years, and that during this period, the University shall not change the functions of the Dedicated Site.”

The Chinese language and cultural education program brought instruction to 47 public schools in 20 Kentucky school districts using teachers recruited from China.

However, because of defense spending passed in 2018, an ongoing relationship with its Confucius Institute would put some of the university’s federal funding at risk, WKU President Timothy Caboni announced in April of 2019.

“Defense spending legislation passed in 2018 prohibits institutions from hosting Confucius Institutes if they receive U.S. Department of Defense funding for Chinese language programs … Although many efforts have been made, WKU has been denied a waiver from the (Department of Defense) that would allow WKU to operate both the CI and the Chinese Flagship Program,” Caboni wrote at the time.

Later, WKU’s Confucius Institute spun off into a separate organization – now called the Confucius Institute of Western Kentucky (CIWKY) – after cementing an agreement in mid-2019 with Simpson County Schools to act as its hosting institution.

Now, with backing from Kentucky’s education agency, the Taiwanese program is positioned to act as a competitor to the more China-aligned Confucius Institute programs.

Terrill Martin, director of the Confucius Institute of Western Kentucky, wrote in an email to the Daily News that he had “no comment at this time” about the announcement.

Asked for specifics about what steps it had taken to address the academic freedom concerns that dogged the previous Confucius Institutes’ Chinese cultural and language education efforts, a Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson sent the following statement:

“The Ministry of Education (MOE) of Taiwan and the Kentucky Department of Education will vet candidates to ensure that they are qualified to teach in the state. The Local Education Agency (LEA) will ensure that the visiting international teachers fulfill the same requirements as the other teachers in the school/district, including instruction, assessment, professional learning and participation in school/community life. Visiting international teachers will be subjected to all laws, regulations, district and school policies, procedures and rules governing public education. The (Ministry of Education) of Taiwan is not connected to teacher exchange programs that are part of the Confucius Institute.”

The program will begin in January, but districts are free to ask questions and express their schools’ needs at any time, KDE said in its release Monday. The department said it wants to start placing Chinese language teachers in Kentucky classrooms beginning next fall.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.

Education reporter. Covers education and related issues, focusing primarily on the Bowling Green and Warren County public school districts and Western Kentucky University.

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