Country singer and actress Stella Parton derided Kentucky Sen. Stephen Meredith Thursday following comments he made regarding the Imagination Library program her sister — American icon Dolly Parton — established to give free books to kids.
Lawmakers including Meredith, R-Leitchfield, discussed Senate Bill 164, which proposes a state partnership with the program, during a legislative committee meeting in Frankfort on Wednesday.
Meredith spoke in favor of adding safeguards to ensure children receive appropriate content through the program.
"I’m outraged this morning that anyone, let alone a GOP Sen. Meredith from the great state of Ky. Would question my sister Dolly or even insinuate something sinister about the 'Imagination Library' program for children," Stella Parton tweeted. "Appalachian people have been maligned as uneducated and to have a Senator from an Appalachian state even think much less say anything derogatory about this incredible program is appalling."
"My big sister stays out of politics but this is an outrage!!" she continued. "I would like to see your IQ score Sen. Meredith along with at least a dozen more of you GOP nimrods. The next thing you know, you will be trying to burn children’s books!"
Stella Parton tweeted further criticism of Meredith later Thursday morning and claimed he "chose the phrase 'indoctrinate our children.'"
He didn't actually say those words during Wednesday's committee meeting, though.
During the meeting, Meredith first expressed support for the spirit of the proposed initiative, saying it's exciting to see kids get engaged in reading. He then prefaced his comments by saying: "This may be a strong statement, don't mean it as such."
He went on to note how the bill mentions the Imagination Library of Kentucky Program would use funds to provide an "age-appropriate book" to children from birth to age 5 in participating counties through Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which is a long-running enterprise.
"And I think that certainly is warranted, given today's environment," Meredith said Wednesday. "But I wonder if that's enough. You know, should it be subject-appropriate as well? Because I have seen some literature that's considered preschool that ... I think is inappropriate content for children that age."
Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat sponsoring the bill, indicated they could discuss that possibility and told Meredith the Imagination Library's hallmark is how they provide books in a way that creates common bonds between children in communities.
"They are staying out of any controversy, and I think that what Dolly Parton and her program have shown is they have age-appropriate and subject matter-appropriate books going to children," McGarvey said, adding that Tennessee has had a statewide Imagination Library initiative for years.
Sen. Stephen Meredith discusses the 'conscience bill' on March 12, 2020.
Meredith responded: "You know, I've always had great respect for this program. I hope we mirror Tennessee's success on this. But as we know, players change over the course of time and things get shifted. I'd just feel a little bit more secure if we had language of that nature in this."
Meredith went on to vote in favor of advancing the Imagination Library legislation.
Meredith told The Courier Journal Thursday he was "a little bit disappointed" in the position Stella Parton took on Twitter.
"I’m disappointed, but you know, that’s social media today," he said. "We always want to take a position of ready, fire, aim without really looking at the total situation."
Stella Parton's criticism of Meredith comes at a time when schools across the country are facing new restrictions on what teachers can teach, including what books they have in their classrooms. Legislation is up for consideration in Kentucky now, for example, that would add controversial rules about how educators can teach history.
Meredith suggested his request to add language concerning appropriate content isn't unreasonable, considering the bill already includes language about sending children "age-appropriate" books.
"I mean, if you feel compelled to have to put in 'age-appropriate book,' doesn't it stand to reason that you should also consider 'content-appropriate'?" he told The Courier Journal.
He expressed respect for the standards Dolly Parton has set for the Imagination Library but noted she won't be around forever and the Kentucky government also would have people working on this statewide initiative if the legislature approves this bill, so he thinks ensuring there are guardrails "to protect our youngest and most vulnerable" is worthwhile.
Kentucky legislators committed last year to taking the Imagination Library statewide, allocating $800,000 to the effort.
Through the Imagination Library program, children from birth to age 5 receive a new book every month. The books are free and delivered directly to the child’s home.
The first Imagination Library program in Kentucky began in 2002 in Henderson County.
Today, roughly 85 of Kentucky’s 120 counties participate in the free-book program, which works with local nonprofits, public libraries, schools and hospitals to enroll eligible children. Just 17% of Kentucky’s 275,000 birth through age 5 children are currently enrolled, according to the state.
Officials hope to enroll 30,000 new children in the program by this summer.
Morgan Watkins is The Courier Journal's chief political reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @morganwatkins26.